NAIROBI (Reuters) – Eritrean soldiers and Tigrayan militias raped, detained and killed Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, an international rights watchdog said Thursday.
The Human Rights Watch report details attacks around two camps in Tigray, where local forces have clashed with the Ethiopian government and their Eritrean allies since November in a conflict that rocked the Horn of Africa region.
Tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees live in Tigray, a mountainous and poor province of about 5 million people.
The Tigrayans were suspicious of them because they were of the same nationality as the occupying Eritrean soldiers, the Eritreans because the loyalty of the refugees was suspect after they fled their homeland.
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“The gruesome killings, rapes and looting against Eritrean refugees in Tigray are clearly war crimes,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), whose work – reported for the first time by Reuters – based on interviews with 28 refugees. and other sources, including satellite imagery.
Eritrea’s information minister did not immediately respond to calls for comment, but Eritrea has previously denied the atrocities and said its forces had not targeted civilians.
A spokesperson for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray said that official Tigrayan forces in uniform had only recently moved into the area and that it was possible that abuses were committed by local militias.
“It was mainly last month that our forces moved to these areas. There was a huge Eritrean army presence there,” Getachew Reda told Reuters. “If there were vigilante groups operating in the heat of the moment, I can’t rule it out.”
International investigators were invited to visit the area, he said.
Prior to the Tigray conflict, Ethiopia hosted around 150,000 Eritrean refugees fleeing poverty and authoritarian rule.
Much of the report focused on two camps – Shimelba and Hitsats – destroyed during the fighting. HRW cited figures from the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR that 7,643 of the 20,000 refugees then living in Hitsats and Shimelba camps are still missing.
The UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, said it was “appalled” by reports of “immense suffering” in the refugee camps, which it was unable to access from November to March.
“IN EVERY HOUSE, PEOPLE KILLED”
Eritrean forces arrived in the northern town of Hitsats on November 19, killed residents, looted and occupied the refugee camp, HRW said. Some refugees aided the direct looters, a resident told HRW.
âIn every house, people have been killed,â a resident told HRW.
Four days later, Tigrayan fighters attacked an area near the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Hitsats camp, killing nine refugees and injuring 17, HRW reported.
âMy husband had our 4 year old on his back and our 6 year old in his arms. As he came back to help me enter the church, they shot him, âa refugee told Human Rights Watch.
Two dozen residents of Hitsats town were reportedly killed in clashes that day, HRW reported.
The report states that HRW was unable to determine the extent to which formal Tigray forces directly command the local Tigray militias operating around Hitsats.
Soon after, Eritrean soldiers arrested two dozen refugees, who were never seen again, HRW said. They also returned the 17 injured refugees to Eritrea.
Eritrean forces withdrew from the Hitsats camp in early December. Tigrayan forces returned on December 5, sending the refugees to flee under attack.
Refugees around the villages of Zelasle and Ziban Gedena, northwest of Hitsats, said they were the target of gunfire and grenade attacks. The Tigrayan forces marched the fleeing refugees towards Hitsats, shooting at some laggards, the refugees reported to HRW. Some women also said they were raped by Tigray fighters as they fled. A 27-year-old woman said Tigrayan fighters raped her along with her 17-year-old sister.
The Tigrayan forces withdrew from the Hitsats on January 4, HRW said. Eritrean forces returned, ordered the remaining refugees to leave, and then destroyed the camp.
In the northernmost camp, Shimelba, Eritrean forces killed at least one refugee, raped at least four others and killed local residents, HRW said.
Violence and severe food shortages have forced some refugees to return to Eritrea. Others fled south to two other camps, Adi Harush and Mai Aini. Tigrayan forces took control of these camps in June and refugees have reported killings and looting.
“We are extremely concerned about the current situation of over 20,000 Eritrean refugees living in Mai Aini and Adi Harush camps in southern Tigray,” UNHCR told Reuters on Wednesday, saying there were severe food and water shortages and health care unavailable.
(Edited by Andrew Cawthorne)
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