Human Rights Watch have called for a UN inquiry into the alleged indiscriminate shelling of urban areas in Tigray by Ethiopian federal forces.
In the first days of the conflict in November last year, artillery attacks on the city of Mekelle and the towns of Humera and Shire, hit hospitals, schools, markets and homes, According to the report. Eighty-three civilians, including children, are said to have been killed and a further 300 wounded.
“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, HRW’s Horn of Africa director. “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.”
Forty-eight people were interviewed for the report, including witnesses of the attacks, journalists and aids orders. HRW also reviewed satellite imagery and photographs and videos of six attacks which confirm witness accounts.
Witnesses recounted a pattern of artillery attacks by government forces on Humera, Shire and Mekelle. They observed that during these attacks “the Tigrayan special forces appeared to have withdrawn, while in Humera local militias lacked a significant presence to defend the town.”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,” it noted, adding that similar patterns ere reported by people from the towns of Rawyan and Axum.
HRW sent their preliminary findings to the Ethiopian government, but received no response.
When Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed addressed the parliament on 30th November, he stated that not a “single person was affected but the operation” on Mekelle.
Laetitia Bader called on the UN to send a fact-finding team to the region to investigate the claims.
“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,” she 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.”
The conflict in Ethiopia began when forces loyal to Tigray People’s Liberation Front attacked federal army bases late last year, following a constitutional dispute over regional elections.
The general election scheduled for May last year was postponed to August by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, due to concerns about Covid-19. When Ahmed decided on a further delay, until a not-given date in 2021, the TPLF objected and went ahead with the election in September.
Since November, the conflict is estimated to have claimed the lives of over 50,000 people and displaced 200,000 more. Amid ongoing reports of atrocities, committed by both sides, Tigray’s opposition parties warned of that it could become a “humanitarian disaster”.