Confidential U.S. government report concludes Ethiopia Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed leading ethnic cleansing in Tigray region

A confidential U.S. government report has concluded that the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Ethiopia along with allied militia fighters are leading a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing in Tigray.

“Whole villages were severely damaged or completely erased,” the report, first obtained by The New York Times, says.

It adds that fighters from the neighboring Amhara region of Ethiopia who moved to Tigray in support of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed are “deliberately and efficiently rendering Western Tigray ethnically homogeneous through the organized use of force and intimidation.”

The report was written early this month, and documents as The Times put it, “a land of looted houses and deserted villages where tens of thousands of people are uncounted for.”

Ethiopia is an ally of the United States in Africa, but President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has also vowed to defend democracy and human rights around the world, a pledge that now puts him in a position to act and send a clear message to other despots in Africa that ethnic cleansing will not be tolerated.

President Joe Biden gets briefed by Liz Sherwood Randall, Julie Rodriguez and participates in a conference phone call with governors affected by the snow storm in the middle of the country in the Oval Office, Feb. 16, 2021, in Washington. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson) 
President Joe Biden gets briefed by Liz Sherwood Randall, Julie Rodriguez and participates in a conference phone call with governors affected by the snow storm in the middle of the country in the Oval Office, Feb. 16, 2021, in Washington. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

On Friday, Amnesty International also released a report saying that soldiers from Eritrea had systematically killed hundreds of Tigrayan civilians in the city of Axum over a 10-day period in November. They shot dead some of them in the streets.

“The evidence is compelling and points to a chilling conclusion. Ethiopian and Eritrean troops carried out multiple war crimes in their offensive to take control of Axum. Above and beyond that, Eritrean troops went on a rampage and systematically killed hundreds of civilians in cold blood, which appears to constitute crimes against humanity,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa. “This atrocity ranks among the worst documented so far in this conflict. Besides the soaring death toll, Axum’s residents were plunged into days of collective trauma amid violence, mourning and mass burials.”

On February 10, Human Rights Watch concluded that Ethiopian federal forces carried out apparently indiscriminate shelling of urban areas in the Tigray region in November 2020 in violation of the laws of war. Artillery attacks at the start of the armed conflict struck homes, hospitals, schools, and markets in the city of Mekelle, and the towns of Humera and Shire, killing at least 83 civilians, including children, and wounding over 300.

President Joe Biden salutes as he disembarks Marine One at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland Friday, Feb. 5, 2021, prior to boarding Air Force One to begin his flight to New Castle County Airport in New Castle, Delaware. (Official White House Photo by Carlos Fyfe) 
President Joe Biden salutes as he disembarks Marine One at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland Friday, Feb. 5, 2021, prior to boarding Air Force One to begin his flight to New Castle County Airport in New Castle, Delaware. (Official White House Photo by Carlos Fyfe)

“At the war’s start, Ethiopian federal forces fired artillery into Tigray’s urban areas in an apparently indiscriminate manner that was bound to cause civilian casualties and property damage,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “These attacks have shattered civilian lives in Tigray and displaced thousands of people, underscoring the urgency for ending unlawful attacks and holding those responsible to account.

The human rights organization recalled that on November 4, the Ethiopian military began operations in Tigray in response to what Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed described as attacks on federal forces and bases by forces affiliated with the region’s ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). As of February 2021, many Tigray residents lack adequate access to food, fuel, water, and medicines. More than 200,000 people are internally displaced, while tens of thousands have also fled to neighboring Sudan.

The Prime Minister of Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia H.E. Mr. Abiy Ahmed arrives in Sochi to take part in the Russia–Africa Summit in October 2019 Photo: Valery Sharifulin/TASS

It wrote: “Human Rights Watch interviewed 37 witnesses and victims of government attacks on Humera, Shire, and Mekelle, as well as 9 journalists, aid workers, and human rights and forensic experts. Interviews were conducted in person in Sudan and by phone between December 2020 and January 2021. Human Rights Watch also examined satellite imagery, and reviewed photographs and videos from the site of six attacks that corroborated witness accounts.

“Human Rights Watch provided a summary of its preliminary findings to the Ethiopian government but received no response. In a parliamentary address on November 30, Prime Minister Abiy maintained that Ethiopian federal forces had not caused civilian casualties during their military operations in Tigray that month. A government Twitter account created during the conflict claimed that federal forces had “avoided combat in cities and towns of the Tigray region.”

“Witnesses described to Human Rights Watch a pattern of artillery attacks by Ethiopian federal forces before they captured Humera, Shire, and Mekelle in November. In each of these attacks the Tigrayan special forces appeared to have withdrawn, while in Humera local militias lacked a significant presence to defend the town. Many of the artillery attacks did not appear aimed at specific military targets but struck generalized populated areas. Human Rights Watch found similar patterns in interviews with 13 people from the towns of Rawyan and Axum.

“These attacks caused civilian deaths and injuries; damaged homes, businesses, and infrastructure; struck near schools; disrupted medical services; and prompted thousands of civilians to flee.

“In the western border town of Humera, residents said that on November 9, artillery fired from Eritrea terrified unsuspecting civilians, striking them in their homes and as they fled. The shelling damaged residential areas in the Kebele 02 neighborhood, and struck near a church and a school, near a mosque in Kebele 01, and hit areas near the town’s main hospital.

“A man who was transporting the wounded on his motorbike said he saw a shell tear through the roof of a house made of steel sheets about 100 meters away from Saint Gabriel church: “Five people were dead. We only found a 7-month-old infant crying among them. He was barely alive, so we took him to the church.”

“Doctors from the town’s main Kahsay Aberra’s hospital said they were overwhelmed by the sudden influx of dead bodies and patients with severe injuries. One estimated that the shelling on November 9 killed at least 46 people and wounded over 200.

“In the northwestern town of Shire, shelling began on November 17 and hit buildings in the center of town and an industrial area. Civilians were killed and injured as they fled near the Abuna Aregawi church. Later that day, witnesses saw Ethiopian forces pass through Shire alongside Eritrean forces.

“Residents from the regional capital, Mekelle, said that heavy shelling on November 28 killed 27 civilians, including children, and wounded over 100. In one attack, shells struck a residential compound near a market, mosque, and an empty school in Ayder sub-city, and killed four members of a single family, including two young children, and wounded five adults and a 9-year-old child.

“The laws of war applicable to the armed conflict in Tigray prohibit attacks targeting civilians or civilian structures, indiscriminate attacks, and attacks expected to cause greater harm to civilians than the anticipated military gain. Indiscriminate attacks include those not directed at a specific military target and that use means of attack that cannot be directed at a specific military target. Bombardments that treat distinct military targets in a city or town as a single military objective would also constitute an indiscriminate attack. Individuals who commit serious violations of the laws of war deliberately or recklessly are responsible for war crimes.

“All forces have an obligation to minimize harm to civilians. They are required to take all feasible precautions to ensure that attacks are directed at military targets, and not civilians. Though several residents in Humera and Mekelle said they saw the use of apparent spotters to direct mortar fire, Human Rights Watch could not determine whether spotters were systematically used or effective, as shells repeatedly struck populated areas that contained no evident military targets.

“As fighting in Tigray continues, all parties to the conflict should abide by the laws of war. Ethiopian federal forces should cease indiscriminate attacks, investigate alleged laws-of-war violations, and refrain from using explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. All sides should allow unhindered access by humanitarian agencies and ensure that health facilities can adequately function. Access to essential services and communications should also be restored.

“The United Nations high commissioner for human rights should send a fact-finding team into the region to investigate alleged violations of the laws of war in Tigray, and to ensure that evidence of abuses is preserved, Human Rights Watch said.

“As the civilian toll of the Tigray conflict comes to light, it is clear that a thorough inquiry into alleged laws-of-war violations in the region that pave the way for justice is desperately needed,” Bader said. “The Ethiopian government should promptly allow UN investigators into Tigray to document the conduct by warring parties in a conflict that has devastated the lives of millions and should no longer be ignored.”

Biden-Harris reactions

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris on Friday spoke with the chairperson of the African Union and President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Felix Tshisekedi.

They discussed several issues, including business opportunities, the Ebola outbreak in the country, COVID-19, and the ravaging humanitarian crisis in Tigray region in northern Ethiopia.

Vice President Kamala Harris sits for an interview with NBC’s “The Today Show”, Feb. 17, 2021, from her ceremonial office in the EEOB in Washington, D.C. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson) 
Vice President Kamala Harris sits for an interview with NBC’s “The Today Show”, Feb. 17, 2021, from her ceremonial office in the EEOB in Washington, D.C. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

“The Vice President emphasized the serious concern of the United States about reports of significant human rights violations and a deteriorating humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. They agreed to collaborate to reduce conflict, support dialogue, and secure peace in eastern DRC and the region,” the White House said.

Harris also congratulated President Tshisekedi on assuming the African Union Chairmanship, the White House said, adding that the two leaders committed to work together to strengthen health security, increase regional trade and investment, promote human rights and good governance, and to address the challenges of climate change. 

“The Vice President committed to working with the DRC government to advance girls’ education and to bolster economic opportunities for all Congolese,” added the White House.

The President of Democratic Republic of the Congo Mr. Felix Antoine TSHISEKEDI TSHILOMBO arrives in Sochi. Felix Antoine TSHISEKEDI TSHILOMBO will take part in the Russia–Africa Summit on 23–24 October. Dmitry Feoktistov/TASS

On Thursday, U.S. President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. spoke with President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, the first African leader since his inauguration on January 20.

Biden and Kenyatta discussed many issues, including the “humanitarian and human rights crises in Ethiopia’s Tigray region and the need to prevent further loss of life and ensure humanitarian access,” the White House said.

“President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. spoke today with President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya. The President affirmed the importance of the strong U.S.- Kenya bilateral relationship,” the White House said of their conversation.

President Biden also emphasized the United States’ continued commitment to working closely with Kenya to support regional peace and security, including at the United Nations Security Council. 

President Uhuru Kenyatta at a past interview event. [Source:Uhuru Kenyatta:Facebook] 
President Uhuru Kenyatta

“The President applauded Kenya’s leadership in the Horn of Africa and commitment to counterterrorism, economic growth, addressing climate change, and sustainable development. 

“Presidents Biden and Kenyatta discussed the deteriorating humanitarian and human rights crises in Ethiopia’s Tigray region and the need to prevent further loss of life and ensure humanitarian access. The leaders also discussed the need for cooperation on other matters of regional stability,” the White House added.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris meet with Secretary of the Treasury Dr. Janet Yellen and business leaders Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz) 
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris meet with Secretary of the Treasury Dr. Janet Yellen and business leaders Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

President Biden has vowed to defend democracy and human rights around the world, and Ethiopia may become a good place to start.

Chief White House Correspondent for

Simon Ateba is Chief White House Correspondent for Today News Africa. Simon covers President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, the U.S. government, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other financial and international institutions in Washington D.C. and New York City.

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