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NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) – Soldiers from Eritrea systematically killed "many hundreds" of people, the large majority men, in a massacre late November in the Ethiopian city of Axum in the Tigray region, Amnesty International said Friday. The new report echoed the findings of an Associated Press story last week and cited more than 40 witnesses.
As pressure on Ethiopia increased over what might be the deadliest massacre of the Tigray conflict, the prime minister’s office announced that "humanitarian agencies have now been provided unfettered access to aid in the region." It added that the government "welcomes international technical assistance to undertake the investigations (into alleged abuses) as well as invites the potential to collaborate on joint investigations."
And yet the government alleged the Amnesty report relied on "scanty information," and said the human rights group should have visited the Tigray region. Amnesty said it requested permission from the government in December and never received a response.
"As you know, no independent human rights monitors have been allowed in the region since the conflict began," spokesman Conor Fortune said in an email to the AP.
FILE - In this Monday, Nov. 4, 2013 file photo, the Church of St. Mary of Zion in Axum, in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. A new Amnesty International report issued Friday, Feb. 26, 2021 says soldiers from Eritrea systematically killed "many hundreds" of people, the large majority men, in a massacre in late November 2020 in the Ethiopian city of Axum. (AP Photo/File)
Crucially, the head of the government-established Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, Daniel Bekele, says the Amnesty findings "should be taken very seriously." The commissions own preliminary findings "indicate the killing of an as yet unknown number of civilians by Eritrean soldiers" in Axum, its statement said.
The Amnesty report describes the soldiers gunning down civilians as they fled, lining up men and shooting them in the back, rounding up "hundreds, if not thousands" of men for beatings and refusing to allow those grieving to bury the dead.
Over a period of about 24 hours, "Eritrean soldiers deliberately shot civilians on the street and carried out systematic house-to-house searches, extrajudicially executing men and boys," the report released early Friday says. "The massacre was carried out in retaliation for an earlier attack by a small number of local militiamen, joined by local residents armed with sticks and stones."
The "mass execution" of Axum civilians by Eritrean troops may amount to crimes against humanity, the report says, and it calls for a United Nations-led international investigation and full access to Tigray for human rights groups, journalists and humanitarian workers. The region has been largely cut off since fighting began in early November.
Ethiopia’s federal government has denied the presence of soldiers from neighboring Eritrea, long an enemy of the Tigray region’s now-fugitive leaders, and Eritrea’s government dismissed the AP story on the Axum massacre as "outrageous lies." Eritreas information minister, Yemane Gebremeskel, on Friday said his country "is outraged and categorically rejects the preposterous accusations" in the Amnesty report.
But even senior members of the Ethiopia-appointed interim government in Tigray have acknowledged the Eritrean soldiers’ presence and allegations of widespread looting and killing.