BFF-04 Calls to protect civilians in Ethiopia as decisive battle looms

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BFF-04

ETHIOPIA-UNREST-TIGRAY

Calls to protect civilians in Ethiopia as decisive battle looms

GONDAR, Ethiopia, Nov 25, 2020 (BSS/AFP) – International pressure mounted
Tuesday on Ethiopia’s warring parties to cease fighting and protect civilians
in Tigray, where the army says it has encircled the capital ahead of a
threatened bombardment.

Forces loyal to Tigray’s ruling party have been battling Ethiopian soldiers
in the northern region for nearly three weeks, sparking a refugee exodus,
civilian atrocities and fears of broader instability in the Horn of Africa.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, on Sunday
gave the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) 72 hours to surrender — an
ultimatum rejected by the leader of the dissident region, who has said his
people are “ready to die” for their homeland.

As the deadline looms, the UN Security Council held its first meeting on
the crisis, despite disagreement between European and African members over
whether the closed-door discussion should take place.

Ethiopia’s army says tanks are within 60 kilometres (37 miles) of the
regional capital Mekele, where it has promised a “no mercy” assault on TPLF
forces.

“The highly aggressive rhetoric on both sides regarding the fight for
Mekele is dangerously provocative and risks placing already vulnerable and
frightened civilians in grave danger,” said UN human rights chief Michelle
Bachelet.

Amnesty International urged Ethiopia against using artillery and aerial
bombings in Mekele, appealing for both sides to consider the city’s half a
million inhabitants and the many more seeking refuge there from fighting
elsewhere.

“Deliberately attacking civilians and civilian objects is prohibited under
international humanitarian law, and constitutes war crimes,” said Deprose
Muchena, head of Amnesty International’s east and southern Africa office.

The government said Tuesday that “a large number of Tigray militia and
special forces” had surrendered after Abiy’s 72-hour ultimatum.

The TPLF, for its part, said on Monday it had routed an army battalion and
claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on Bahir Dar — the capital of
Amhara region to the south of Tigray — where local forces are fighting
alongside Ethiopian troops.

Tigray remains under a communications blackout and media access to the
region has been restricted, making independent verification of claims from
both sides difficult.

– ‘End this conflict’ –

Abiy has resisted growing calls for mediation since ordering troops, tanks
and warplanes into Tigray on November 4 in response to what he said were
attacks on federal military camps orchestrated by the TPLF.

The African Union (AU), headquartered in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa,
has dispatched three former African presidents as special envoys to try and
broker talks on the Tigray crisis.

A spokesman for an Ethiopian committee handling the conflict said Monday
the government would meet the envoys “as a matter of respect” but flatly
ruled out negotiations with the TPLF.

Tuesday’s virtual meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the crisis
was briefly in doubt after African countries pulled out.

But diplomats from France, Britain, Belgium, Germany and Estonia ultimately
forced the talks to go ahead, backed by the United States.

“At a certain moment, we have to put it on the agenda, even if the Africans
don’t like it,” a European diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity,
highlighting the growing impatience over the lack of Security Council action
on the weeks-long fighting.

The US National Security Council on Monday called for mediation and
extended its support to the AU diplomatic effort “to end this tragic conflict
now”.

– ‘Rampage’ –

The fighting has already driven more than 40,000 people into Sudan and
forced many more to flee within Tigray. Hundreds have reportedly been killed,
though the true extent of death and displacement is not known.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, a government-affiliated but
independent body, said Tuesday that at least 600 people had been slaughtered
in a “rampage” in the town of Mai-Kadra on November 9.

A local Tigrayan youth group aided by police and militia “killed hundreds
of people, beating them with batons/sticks, stabbing them with knives,
machetes and hatchets and strangling them with ropes,” the commission said in
a report. Tigrayan refugees from Mai-Kadra, who have fled to Sudan, have
blamed government forces for the killings.

Long-running tensions between Addis Ababa and the TPLF boiled over in
September when Tigray proceeded with regional elections in defiance of the
federal government, which declared the vote illegal.

BSS/AFP/MSY/0827 hrs