Ethiopia's Tigray conflict risks 'spiralling out of control': UN human rights chief

Fighting between Ethiopian government forces and rebellious northern leaders could spiral out of control and war crimes may have been committed, the United Nations said on Friday, as repercussions spread around the volatile Horn of Africa.

Thousands of Ethiopians have fled to Sudan in just under 2 weeks since offensive launched in Tigray

Members of the Amhara Special Force return to their military base in Danasha, Amhara region after fighting against the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), on Nov. 9. (Tiksa Negeri/Reuters)

Fighting between Ethiopian government forces and rebellious northern leaders could spiral out of control and war crimes may have been committed, the United Nations said on Friday, as repercussions spread around the volatile Horn of Africa.

The 10-day conflict in Tigray region has killed hundreds, sent refugees flooding into Sudan, and raised fears it may also suck in Eritrea or force Ethiopia to divert troops from an African force opposing al-Qaeda-linked militants in Somalia.

It may also blemish the reputation of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for a 2018 peace pact with Eritrea and had won plaudits for opening Ethiopia's economy and easing a repressive political system.

"There is a risk this situation will spiral totally out of control, leading to heavy casualties and destruction, as well as mass displacement within Ethiopia itself and across borders," United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said via a spokesperson.

A massacre of civilians reported by Amnesty International, if confirmed as committed by a party to the conflict, would amount to war crimes, she said.

(Tim Kindrachuk/CBC)

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed accuses the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which rules the mountainous region of more than five million people, of treason and terrorism.

Federal troops say the TPLF rose against them last week but that they have since survived a siege and recaptured the west of the region. With communications cut and media barred, there has been no independent confirmation of the state of the fighting.

The TPLF says Abiy's government has systematically persecuted Tigrayans since he took office in April 2018 and terms the military operations an "invasion."

Federal troops have been carrying out airstrikes and there has been fighting on the ground since Nov. 4. Ethiopia denied a TPLF claim that federal jets had knocked out a power dam.

Central government appoints leader for Tigray

Abiy, who comes from Ethiopia's largest ethnic group the Oromo, said parliament named former Addis Ababa university academic and deputy minister for science and higher education Mulu Nega, 52, as the new leader of Tigray.

There was no immediate response to Mulu's appointment from current Tigray leader Debretsion Gebremichael, who won a local election in September despite central government orders to cancel it, or from other TPLF figures.

Abiy this week urged Ethiopians to ensure Tigrayans are not targeted.

"We all must be our brother's keeper by protecting Tigrayans from any negative pressures," he said.

His opening of political space since taking office in 2018 exposed ethnic fractures in Africa's second most populous nation of 115 million people. Before the Tigray flare-up, clashes killed hundreds and uprooted hundreds of thousands.

An internal UN security report said Ethiopian police visited an office of the UN World Food Program (WFP) in Amhara region to request a list of Tigrayan staff.

The local police chief told them of "the order of identifying ethnic Tigrayans from all government agencies and NGOs," the report said, underlining the conflict's ethnic undertones. Amhara borders Tigray and its rulers back Abiy.

The United Nations told the police it does not identify staff by ethnicity, according to the report. There was no immediate comment from the Amhara regional police or government.

More than 14,500 Ethiopians have fled

Rights group Amnesty International said on Thursday that scores and possibly hundreds of civilians were stabbed and hacked to death in the region on Nov. 9, citing witnesses who blamed the TPLF. Debretsion denied that to Reuters.

More than 14,500 Ethiopian refugees — half of them children — have gone to Sudan since fighting started and aid agencies say the situation in Tigray is becoming dire. There are also concerns about a mass displacement of thousands of Eritrean refugees at a camp in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia's national army is one of Africa's largest. But its best fighters are from Tigray and much of its hardware is also there, under the Northern Command.

Ethiopia hosts the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa. Nearly 4,400 Ethiopian troops serve in its Somalia peacekeeping force.

About 500 Ethiopian forces deployed in Somalia separately from the AU peacekeeping force returned home in early November, three sources told Reuters.

"A protracted internal conflict will inflict devastating damage on both Tigray and Ethiopia as a whole, undoing years of vital development progress," said the United Nations' Bachelet. "It could, in addition, all too easily spill across borders, potentially destabilizing the whole sub-region."