UN's Bachelet: conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region risks 'spiralling out of control'

A man holds a national flag as he waits in the stands to give blood at a blood drive in support of the country's military at a stadium in the capital Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. Rallies occurred in multiple cities in support of the federal government military offensive against the Tigray regional government, the Tigray People's Liberation Front. (Keystone/ AP Photo / Mulugeta Ayene)

Military clashes in Tigray have killed hundreds of civilians and forced thousands more to flee their homes, with UN officials warning violence could soon spill over into nearby countries.

United Nations officials have expressed alarm over escalating tensions in Ethiopia’s Tigray region amid reports of mass killings and military clashes which have forced thousands of civilians to flee to neighbouring countries.

Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, warned that the violence may soon spill into nearby countries if the clashes between government forces and Tigray regional forces continue.

“There is a risk this situation will spiral totally out of control, leading to heavy casualties and destruction, as well as mass displacement within Ethiopia itself and across borders,” Bachelet said in a statement delivered on Friday by Geneva-based spokesperson, Rupert Colville.

Mass killings in the town of Mai-Kadra were reported by Amnesty International yesterday, with the organisation claiming to have seen evidence that “scores, possibly hundreds” of people were “stabbed or hacked to death” in a brutal night of violence on 9 November.

Amnesty confirmed they had examined photographs and videos from the town and verified their location using satellite imagery, as well as receiving reports from a number of witnesses. Although the details of the mass killings have not yet been fully verified, Bachelet has called for a full investigation.

“If confirmed as having been deliberately carried out by a party to the current fighting, these killings of civilians would of course amount to war crimes, and there must be an independent investigation and full accountability for what has happened,” she said. “However, the first priority right now must be to stop the fighting and prevent any further atrocities from taking place.”

In a separate statement released this morning, the UN acting special adviser on the prevention of genocide Pramila Patten and the special adviser on the responsibility to protect Karen Smith said they have received reports of “incidents of ethnically and religiously motivated hate speech, incitement to violence and serious human rights violations including arbitrary arrests, killings, displacement of populations and destruction of property in various parts of the country.”

Communication has been cut off in the region which has made assessing the extent of the crisis difficult, however, there are reports that essential water and electricity supplies have been cut and access by both road and air has been blocked, limiting food supplies.

According to UNHCR, more than 14,500 people have already fled into Sudan in search of safety, with 4000 crossing the border in a single day. Speaking at this morning's press conference, UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch warned that aid services in Sudan were being overwhelmed. Baloch also said that refugee services in Tigray, which is host to around 96,000 Eritrean refugees, have been seriously disrupted amid reports of increased internal displacement and fighting nearing existing refugee camps.

Bachelet has appealed to both sides to begin talks with the aim of bringing an immediate end to hostilities. “I strongly urge both sides to realise that there will be no winner in such a situation and begin a serious dialogue to resolve their differences without delay,” Bachelet said.

“A protracted internal conflict will inflict devastating damage on both Tigray and Ethiopia as a whole, undoing years of vital development progress. It could, in addition, all too easily spill across borders, potentially destabilising the whole sub-region. ”

Background to the conflict. On 4 November 2020, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered the Ethiopian Defence Forces (EDF) to militarily engage with the Tigray Regional Paramilitary Police and militia loyal to the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF). Ahmed stated he was responding to attacks by the Tigray security forces on the EDF across the region. Since then, there have been reports of armed clashes between forces on the ground and airstrikes by government forces.

The UN has reported that nine million people living in and around Tigray are at “high risk” from the conflict. Local officials and aid organisations are said to be overwhelmed by the number of people crossing into eastern Sudan, as well as the internal displacement in Tigray, which is already host to thousands of refugees from nearby Eritrea. Conditions for civilians are rapidly deteriorating, with the conflict cutting off food supplies, as well as vital electricity and water.