NAIROBI, Kenya — Even as warring Ethiopians attend their first formal peace talks in a devastating two-year conflict, witnesses in the beleaguered Tigray region tell The Associated Press that forces in neighboring Eritrea are killing civilians and then looting that they and allied Ethiopian forces move towards the regional capital.
With internet and phone access to the region cut and independent journalists banned from Tigray, observers say it is increasingly difficult to reach people for stories of the fighting which erupted again in August after a month-long lull. The United States now estimates that hundreds of thousands of people could have been killed in the war marked by abuses on all sides as fears grow the conflict has reached its deadliest stage.
The AP spoke to witnesses from the towns of Shire, Axum and Adwa, where Ethiopian and allied forces are present as they battle Tigray forces. All spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. It is not known how many civilians have been killed in recent weeks.
An aid worker from Axum who moved to Shire this week in fear for his life said civilians had been killed there by Eritrean forces since at least Sunday.
“I witnessed four dead bodies in a village about 4 kilometers from Axum” as he fled on Tuesday, he said, and described the bodies in civilian clothes. “People live nights of terror.”
Eritreans were also burning crops, he said – an echo of their early occupation in the early weeks of the war.
In Shire, a staff member from an international aid organization said Eritrean forces were looting vehicles and household items, in some cases loading stolen goods onto camels they had brought with them. The Eritreans also entered a camp for displaced people, he said, and previously controlled the local airport. It was unclear if they still did.
Ethiopian forces sometimes tried to stop Eritrean forces, the two witnesses said. “But they just watch them most of the time,” the Axum man said. “Sometimes they try to stop them, but it’s beyond their capabilities.”
An Ethiopian government spokesman, Legesse Tulu, did not respond to questions about the allegation and whether Ethiopian forces have control over Eritrean forces.
African Union-led peace talks between the Ethiopian government and regional authorities in Tigray are being held in South Africa, whose government said talks would end on Sunday. But Eritrea is not part of the talks, and it is unclear whether the deeply repressive country that borders the Tigray region will heed any deal.
The authorities in Tigray want Eritreans to leave the region, in addition to the restoration of basic services such as electricity and banking services and unlimited access to humanitarian aid. The United Nations says aid delivery to Tigray ended on August 23, a day before fighting resumed, due to “lack of federal clearances”, and warns of widespread malnutrition and lack of medication.
A Tigray forces leader, Tadesse Werede, said on Thursday that the Ethiopian government should ensure that Eritrean forces leave Tigray for any peace effort to be sustainable.
In the first weeks of the war, witnesses told the AP of widespread looting and violence, including killings and rapes by Eritrean forces, including the government led by the country’s only president. never had, Isaias Afwerki, has long been hostile to the rulers of Tigray. For months, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed denied the presence of Eritreans in Tigray.
Since the fighting resumed, the Eritreans have returned. Residents of Eritrea described renewed military mobilization and satellite imagery showed a military buildup near the border with the Tigray region.
Now, as the war with documented abuses on all sides marks two years next week, international expressions of alarm over the atrocities in Tigray have skyrocketed. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum warned this week of an “increased risk of genocide”, noting that “the situation has deteriorated exponentially as Ethiopian security forces, supported by Eritrean forces and Amhara special forces , seized key cities”.
Ethiopia’s government issued an angry statement on Friday alleging “extreme slander” and said it may be “forced to weigh its options and consider its relationship with certain states and entities”.
And the Eritrean government, in an open letter to the museum, accused him of recycling defamatory accusations, but acknowledged “enormous loss of life and destruction of property” in the conflict.
The letter did not mention the presence of Eritrean forces in Tigray.
But witnesses confirmed it this week in towns like Adwa, where a humanitarian source said Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers engaged in heavy fighting this week with tanks and long-range weapons on its outskirts. Terrified civilians are fleeing for their safety, they said.
Long trapped in Tigray, tens of thousands of civilians are on the move again, some on foot as the UN says little fuel has been allowed into the area.
Shire was like a ghost town, said the aid worker there. One of the aid workers who fled to the regional capital, Mekele, told the AP that the sometimes deadly shelling of Shire had intensified in recent weeks. Now Ethiopian and Eritrean forces control the town, the worker said, with their identities clearly indicated by their uniforms and vehicles.
On Friday, a health worker in Mekele said the fighting had not reached the regional capital, and Tigray forces spokesman Getachew Reda, one of the representatives at the peace talks, claimed in a tweet that the fighting was 160 kilometers away.
The war continues to be deadly for everyone involved. On Friday, the Ethiopian Red Cross said one of its ambulance drivers was killed by “armed forces” and injured passengers were shot dead.
The driver was transporting the injured from Adwa to the nearby Amhara region, the Red Cross said.