In November 2020, Eritrean troops possibly killed hundreds of civilians in the northern Ethiopian town of Axum, which may amount to crime against humanity, Amnesty International claimed in a report released on Friday.
Violence in the area has been raging since 4 November, after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military offensive against the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), a popular guerrilla organisation in the Tigray region.
According to the Amnesty report, the rights watchdog spoke to 41 survivors and witnesses of the atrocities, which the watchdog claims took place on 28-29 November. The report also argued that the killings were corroborated by a spate of satellite images identifying signs of new mass burials near two of the Axum's churches.
The ancient town of Axum is reportedly home to the Ark of the Covenant. The Bible describes the ark as a gilded chest that contains stone tablets with the Ten Commandments. The chest, which is topped with two golden figurines of angels, was carried using poles inserted through rings on its sides. The ark is believed to have been in an Axum church since the 1960s.
Amnesty Director for East and Southern Africa Deprose Muchena said "the evidence is compelling and points to a chilling conclusion" concerning Ethiopian and Eritrean troops committing "multiple war crimes in their offensive to take control of Axum".
"Eritrean troops went on a rampage and systematically killed hundreds of civilians in cold blood, which appears to constitute crimes against humanity. This atrocity ranks among the worst documented so far in this conflict. Besides the soaring death toll, Axum's residents were plunged into days of collective trauma amid violence, mourning and mass burials", Muchena added.
He called for an UN-led investigation into the Axum atrocities to be opened, saying that those suspected of being responsible for war crimes or crimes against humanity should be prosecuted in "fair trials".
The Amnesty official also urged the Ethiopian government to grant "full and unimpeded access across Tigray for humanitarian, human rights, and media organisations".
Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) chief Daniel Bekele said that Amnesty's Axum-related findings should be taken "very seriously".
The federal government's conflict with the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) escalated in 2019, when the party quit Prime Minister Abiy's governing coalition.
In September 2020, Tigray defied federal COVID-19 restrictions and held regional parliamentary elections. The federal government did not recognise the results and called local authorities a "junta" and "fugitives from justice" who must be "made accountable by law" after launching a military operation on 4 November.
The fighting in Tigray has already forced at least 1 million people to flee their homes, with many entering areas bordering the region and others crossing into neighboring Sudan, according to media reports.