Concern continues to grow over the humanitarian situation in Tigray where the conflict began in November.
Atrocities have been committed in Tigray, Ethiopia’s northern region where fighting persists as government troops hunt down its fugitive leaders, the country’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said.
This is the first time Abiy appears to acknowledge that serious crimes have taken place in Tigray, which is home to six million people.
“Reports indicate that atrocities have been committed in Tigray region,” Abiy told lawmakers in the capital, Addis Ababa, on Tuesday.
War is “a nasty thing”, he said, speaking the local Amharic language. “We know the destruction this war has caused.”
He said soldiers who raped women or committed other war crimes will be held responsible, even though he cited “propaganda of exaggeration” by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the once-dominant party whose leaders challenged Abiy’s legitimacy after the postponement of elections last year.
Abiy spoke as concerns continue to grow over the humanitarian situation in the embattled region where the conflict began in November last year when Abiy sent government troops into the region following an attack on federal military facilities.
The federal army is now hunting the fugitive regional leaders.
Abiy accused the embattled region’s leaders of drumming “a war narrative” while the area faced challenges such as a destructive invasion of locusts and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This was misplaced and untimely arrogance,” he said.
The Ethiopian prime minister, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his efforts to make peace with Eritrea, faces pressure to end the conflict in Tigray as well as to institute an international investigation into alleged war crimes.
The government’s critics say an ongoing federal probe is not enough because the government cannot effectively investigate itself.
On Monday, the heads of nine UN agencies and other officials demanded a halt to attacks against civilians in Tigray, “including rape and other horrific forms of sexual violence”.
In a joint statement, the UN agencies, the UN special investigator on the human rights of internally displaced people, and two umbrella organisations representing NGOs also called on all parties in Tigray to explicitly condemn all sexual violence and ensure their forces “respect and protect civilian populations, particularly women and children, from all human rights abuses”.
UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said on Monday the conflict continues to drive massive displacement, with tens of thousands of people arriving into Shire, Axum and Adwa, most fleeing fighting in western Tigray in the last few weeks.
There are also reports of people uprooted by violence in the northwest and central areas, he said.
Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch reported that Eritrean forces shot dead hundreds of children and civilians in a November massacre in Tigray.
An Amnesty International investigation into the same events detailed how Eritrean troops “went on a rampage and systematically killed hundreds of civilians in cold blood”.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres joined calls for the Eritrean troops to leave Tigray while the UN human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, urged an investigation into the situation.