Eritrean troops fighting in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region “killed hundreds of unarmed civilians” in the city of Axum in late November 2020, according to a report Amnesty International released Friday.
Describing the alleged attack on November 28-29 as a “systematic” killing, the human rights organization said Eritrean troops opened fire on the streets of Axum and conducted “house-to-house raids in a massacre that may amount to a crime against humanity.”
Amnesty International interviewed 41 survivors and witnesses of the attack who “consistently described extrajudicial executions, indiscriminate shelling, and widespread looting” during the two-day assault on the city.
Ethiopian soldiers, accompanied by allied Eritrean troops, launched an offensive to seize control of Axum on November 19 as part of an ongoing military conflict between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and Addis Ababa. Ethiopian federal forces have been engaged in a military stand-off with the TPLF, a separatist group, since November 4, when the Ethiopian government accused TPLF forces of attacking a federal military base.
Eritrean troops “unleashed the worst of the violence” on Axum from November 28-29, witnesses told Amnesty International.
“The onslaught came directly after a small band of pro-Tigray People’s Liberation Front militiamen attacked the [Ethiopian federal] soldiers’ base on Mai Koho mountain on the morning of 28 November. The militiamen were armed with rifles and supported by residents brandishing improvised weapons — including sticks, knives, and stones,” according to some of the witnesses.
“The Eritrean soldiers were trained but the young residents didn’t even know how to shoot … a lot of the [local] fighters started running away and dropped their weapons. The Eritrean soldiers came into the city and started killing randomly,” a 22-year-old male witness told the human rights group.
“Eritrean forces deliberately and wantonly shot at civilians” from about 4:00 pm onwards on November 28, other witnesses and survivors of the onslaught told Amnesty International.
“[T]he victims carried no weapons and many were running away from the soldiers when they were shot,” a number of Axum residents alleged.
Amnesty’s Crisis Evidence Lab said on February 26 that it had analyzed recent satellite images of Axum that “corroborated reports of indiscriminate shelling and mass looting” on November 28-29. The images also appeared to indicate the construction of new mass burial sites near two of Axum’s main Christian churches.
“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,” Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa, was quoted as saying in the report.
“Eritrean troops went on a rampage and systematically killed hundreds of civilians in cold blood, which appears to constitute crimes against humanity,” he said.