The Ethiopian government is facing new pressure from the US to stop the crackdown on the Tigray region, with some rights groups warning of possible war crimes in the area.
Just about 24 hours to the end of the second ultimatum issued by the Ethiopian Prime Minister for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) to surrender, the US government said both parties should choose dialogue for the sake of civilians.
A statement from the US National Security Council indicated that Washington supports the African Union’s move to send special envoys to Addis Ababa.
“The United States calls for mediation in Ethiopia and supports the efforts led by [South African] President Cyril Ramaphosa and the African Union to end this tragic conflict now,” the Council said.
The statement signalled renewed pressure from the US, which had last week said it would focus more on peace rather than mediation as both parties had hardened their stances to fight.
At the same time, the UN Security Council was on Tuesday scheduled to discuss the situation in Tigray in a closed-door meeting. It was not clear if a statement or declaration would be made afterwards.
Dr Abiy has since last week rejected calls to de-escalate and choose dialogue with the TPLF. He has described the TPLF as “criminals”, “junta” and “fugitives from justice.”
Last week, President Ramaphosa, the current African Union Chairperson, appointed ex-presidents Joachim Chissano of Mozambique, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia and Kgalema Motlanthe of South Africa to be special envoys to Addis Ababa to help “mediate” the conflict.
But Addis Ababa said the three leaders would meet the Premier for “one on one” talks but not to encourage mediation with the TPLF.
The African Union initiative was endorsed by the UN with Secretary General António Guterres saying it is a measure “towards ensuring a peaceful, stable and prosperous Ethiopia.”
The conflict in the Tigray region escalated on November 4 after Prime Minister Abiy ordered his troops to crackdown on the TPLF, accusing the group of attacking a military camp manned by the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF). TPLF have ignored a previous three-day ultimatum to surrender.
On Sunday evening, Dr Abiy issued another 72-hour amnesty to the fighters to surrender, failing which they would face the wrath of the ENDF.
On Tuesday, Redwan Hussein, the Ethiopian State Minister for Foreign Affairs and the spokesperson of the Emergency Taskforce on Tigray, said fighters allied to the TPLF surrendered during the amnesty.
“Using the government's 72-hour period, a large number of Tigray militia and special forces are surrendering,” Mr Redwan said in a statement, without indicating how many had given themselves up.
“Many have surrendered through the Afar region, and the remaining forces are surrendering peacefully.”
On Monday, Dr Abiy listed 10 occasions he tried to negotiate with the TPLF, all of which he claimed were rejected, leading to the current conflict.
But as Ethiopia prepares to launch attacks on the capital of Tigray in Mekelle, rights watchdogs are warning against attacking civilian sites.
The rights groups said they were alarmed after Ethiopian military spokesman Col Dejene Tsegaye called on civilians in Mekelle “to save themselves from any artillery attacks and free yourselves from the junta ... After that, there will be no mercy.”
Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa, said in a statement on Monday, “Amnesty International reminds all parties that deliberately attacking civilians and civilian objects is prohibited under international humanitarian law, and constitutes war crimes.”
Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa Director at the Human Rights Watch warned, “Treating a whole city as a military target would not only be unlawful, it could also be considered a form of collective punishment.”
The Ethiopian government has since argued there had been a “misleading translation” of the Col Dejene’s statement.
Both the TPLF and the ENDF have accused each other of killing civilians and destroying civilian installations. But Tigray has been under information blockade with limited access.
A statement issued on Tuesday by the Emergency Taskforce said there has been “great care to protect civilians from harm during the law enforcement.”
“Due care for the safety of civilians will guide our approach in the final phase of operations being carried out by the ENDF.”