Amnesty says Eritrean troops killed hundreds of Ethiopian civilians in Axum

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Eritrean soldiers killed hundreds of civilians in Ethiopia's ancient town of Axum between Nov. 28 and 29, rights group Amnesty International said on Friday, one of several mass killings reported during a conflict that erupted nearly four months ago in the northern region of Tigray.

"Over an approximately 24-hour period, on 28-29 November 2020, Eritrean troops operating in the Ethiopian city of Axum killed many hundreds of civilians,” Amnesty said, citing 41 witnesses.

The rights group said that the mass execution of civilians by Eritrean troops may amount to crimes against humanity.

The Ethiopian government’s emergency task force for the Tigray said on Thursday that investigations into violence in Axum were underway.

The state-run Ethiopian Human Rights Commission released a statement timed to coincide with the Amnesty report, saying preliminary investigations indicated that Eritrean soldiers had killed an unknown number of civilians in Axum in retaliation for an earlier attack by soldiers of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the region's ousted ruling party.

Eritrea's foreign minister, Osman Saleh Mohammed, did not respond to requests for comment.

News of the mass killing took months to confirm; communications to Tigray were down for many weeks and media access has been tightly restricted, although that is now loosening slightly.

Both Ethiopia and Eritrea have previously denied that Eritrean troops were in Ethiopian territory. The TPLF and many residents say Eritrea intervened to support Ethiopian soldiers after the TPLF attacked government bases in the early hours of Nov. 4.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed claimed victory on Nov. 28, the day that TPLF forces withdrew from Mekelle - and the day Amnesty says Eritreans were killing civilians in Axum.

The rights group said the killings were retaliation for an attack by local militia and that soldiers executed men and boys in the streets and engaged in extensive looting.

A Tigrayan man working in construction told Reuters that Eritrean soldiers shot dead six members of his family in Axum on Nov. 28, including his 17-year-old brother and 78-year-old father. Since phones were down, he found out more than a month later from residents who had buried them.

“Everything our family had - all the happiness - has turned to darkness,” he said in an phone interview from the capital Addis Ababa this week.

Mulu Nega, head of Tigray’s government-appointed interim administration, told Reuters: “The police and the judiciary are investigating.”

Reuters could not reach people in Axum by phone. Communications to Tigray remain patchy, as does electricity.

Axum is a UNESCO World Heritage site, famed for its tall obelisks and ancient churches, including one reputed to house the Bible's famed Ark of the Covenant.

(Reporting by Nairobi and Addis Ababa newsroom; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

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