A new report by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) says Eritrean troops killed unarmed civilians in the historic town of Aksum in Tigray, piling accusations of atrocities on Asmara.
The document released on Wednesday morning reports of incidents when armed Eritrean troops went from house to house asking for men and boys from villages. They then shot them, it says.
The report titled ‘Investigation into Grave Human Rights Violations in Aksum City’ is only a preliminary finding, and was released a day after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed admitted for the first time the presence of Eritrean troops on Ethiopian soil.
The findings confirmed that on two days, November 28 and November 29, 2020, “grave violations of human rights” were committed in Aksum against more than 100 civilians including tourists on a pilgrimage to mark the annual Aksum Tsion celebration and IDPs living in the area.
As the residents, families of victims and eyewitnesses described to EHRC, “civilians were killed in front of their children, spouses and mothers.”
Eritrean soldiers went door to door asking women “where their husbands or children were” telling them “to bring their sons out if they have any” and asking questions in Tigrinya and shooting at civilian men they dragged out of houses and caught on streets even as the men pleaded saying they were not armed.
“Families of victims and eyewitnesses identified the attackers as Eritrean soldiers by their distinct Eritrean Tigrinya accent, by the uniforms and shoes they were wearing and a distinct cultural marking on the face of some of the Eritrean soldiers.”
Eritrea had reacted angrily to earlier reports by Amnesty International and later Human Rights Watch in February, accusing the rights watchdogs of relying on ‘biased’ witnesses among the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
On Tuesday, however, Dr Abiy said Eritrean troops had done “favours” to his country when he first launched an operation targeting the erstwhile ruling party, TPLF. But he did say Addis Ababa will not defend atrocities committed by either his own troops or those of Eritrea.
“However, after the Eritrean army crossed the border and was operating in Ethiopia, any damage it did to our people was unacceptable," he said.
“We don't accept it because it is the Eritrean army, and we would not accept it if it were our soldiers. The military campaign was against our clearly targeted enemies, not against the people. We have discussed this four or five times with the Eritrean government,” Dr Abiy said.
The Ethiopian rights watchdog said the crimes were not ‘ordinary’ “but grave contraventions of applicable international and human rights laws and principles, marked by intentionally directed attacks against civilians who were not directly taking part in the hostilities and including intentional looting, destruction and appropriation of property not justified by military necessity (including religious institutions and health facilities).”
“As these grave human rights violations may amount to crimes against humanity or war crimes, it underscores the need for a comprehensive investigation into overall human rights situation in Tigray region.”