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EXCLUSIVE HRW: Eritrean and Tigrayan forces kill and rape refugees

EXCLUSIVE HRW: Eritrean and Tigrayan forces kill and rape refugees

  • Thousands of Eritrean refugees trapped in the northern Ethiopian war
  • Refugees distrusted and abused by warriors on both sides
  • ‘Clearly war crimes’ committed, says rights group

NAIROBI, September 16 (Reuters) – Eritrean soldiers and Tigray militias raped, detained and killed Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, an international rights watchdog said on Thursday.

Human Rights Watch’s report details attacks around two camps in Tigray, where local forces have been fighting the Ethiopian government and their Eritrean allies since November in a conflict that has shaken the Horn of Africa region.

Tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees live in Tigray, a mountainous and impoverished province with about 5 million people.

The Tigrayans distrusted them because they were of the same nationality as occupying Eritrean soldiers, Eritreans, because the loyalty of refugees was suspicious after they fled their homeland.

“The horrific killings, rapes and looting of Eritrean refugees in Tigray are clear war crimes,” said Laetitia Bader, director of the Horn of Africa at Human Rights Watch (HRW), whose work – first reported by Reuters – interviewed 28 refugees and other sources. , including satellite imagery.

Eritrea’s information minister did not return immediately with calls seeking comment, but Eritrea has previously denied atrocities, saying their forces have not targeted civilians.

A spokesman for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front said that formal, uniformed Tigray forces had only recently moved into the area and that it was possible that local militias had committed assaults.

“It’s mostly in the last month or so that our forces moved into these areas. There was a huge Eritrean army presence there,” Getachew Reda told Reuters. “If there were vigilante groups acting at the moment, I can not rule it out.”

International investigators were welcome to visit the area, he said.

Prior to the Tigray conflict, Ethiopia hosted some 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 the UN refugee agency UNHCR figures that 7,643 out of 20,000 refugees then living in Hitsats and Shimelba camps are still missing.

The UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, said it was “appalled” by the reports of “enormous suffering” in refugee camps, which it was unable to access from November to March.

‘IN EVERY HOUSE KILLED PEOPLE’

Eritrean forces arrived in the northern city of Hitsats on November 19, killing residents and pillaging and occupying the refugee camp, HRW said. Some refugees directly helped loot, a resident told HRW.

“In every house, people were killed,” a resident told HRW.

Four days later, Tigrayan fighters attacked an area near the Hitsats camp’s Ethiopian Orthodox Church, killing nine refugees and wounding 17, HRW reported.

“My husband had our 4-year-old on his back and our 6-year-old in his arms. When he came back to help me get into the church, they shot him,” a refugee told Human Rights Watch.

Two dozen residents of the town of Hitsats were reportedly killed in clashes that day, HRW reported.

The report said HRW was unable to determine the extent to which Tigray’s formal forces had direct command of local Tigray militias operating around Hitsats.

Shortly after, Eritrean soldiers detained two dozen refugees who were never seen again, HRW said. They also took the 17 wounded refugees back to Eritrea.

Eritrean forces withdrew from the Hitsats camp in early December. Tigrayan forces returned on December 5, sending refugees on the run during attacks.

Refugees around the villages of Zelasle and Ziban Gedena, northwest of Hitsats, reported being shot at and attacked with grenades. Tigrayan forces marched refugee refugees back to Hitsats and shot some strangers, refugees reported to HRW. Some women also said they were raped by Tigrayan fighters as they fled. A 27-year-old woman said Tigrayan fighters raped her along with her 17-year-old sister.

Tigrayan forces withdrew from Hitsats on January 4, HRW said. The 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.

The violence and severe food shortages forced some refugees to return to Eritrea. Others fled south to two other camps, Adi Harush and Mai Aini. Tigrayan forces took over these camps in June, and refugees have reported killings and looting.

“We are extremely concerned about the current situation with over 20,000 Eritrean refugees living in the Mai Aini and Adi Harush camps in southern Tigray,” the UNHCR told Reuters on Wednesday, adding that there was a severe food and water shortage and that health services were not available.

Edited by Andrew Cawthorne

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