(Reuters) – Ethiopia’s state-appointed human rights commission said on Tuesday that a Tigrayan youth group stabbed, strangled, and bludgeoned to death an estimated 600 civilians with the collusion of local security forces during a mass killing in the town of Mai Kadra.
The Nov. 9 attack – first reported by rights group Amnesty International – was aimed at residents of non-Tigrayan origin, the commission said. It called the attack a “massacre,” saying accounts from survivors and witnesses suggested that the killings were part of a “widespread or systematic attack directed against a civilian population.”
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed called in a tweet for “the international community to condemn these atrocious acts of crimes against humanity.”
Reuters was not immediately able to verify the accounts because internet and phone connections to the region are down and access tightly controlled since fighting erupted between government troops and forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) on Nov. 4.
Reuters was unable to reach local Tigray leaders for comment. The TPLF have previously denied any responsibility for the killings.
Amnesty declined to comment on the Ethiopian commission’s findings.
In a Nov. 12 report, Amnesty said scores and possibly hundreds of civilians were stabbed and hacked to death in the region on Nov. 9. It said it had not been able to independently confirm who was responsible, but said witnesses had blamed fighters loyal to Tigray’s local leaders, apparently after they had suffered a defeat by federal forces.
Mai Kadra is in the southwest part of Tigray, a northern state that borders Sudan and Eritrea. Hundreds have died, more than 41,000 have fled to Sudan, and there has been widespread destruction and uprooting of people from homes in the three-week-old war in Tigray.
Mai Kadra is claimed by both the Tigrayans and members of the Amhara ethnic group.
Some Tigrayan refugees have said they were attacked by people from the Amhara region, which borders Tigray and whose leaders back Abiy. Reuters could not independently confirm their accounts. A spokeswoman from the prime minister’s office said such reports could be TPLF disinformation.
The Ethiopian commission said people of Amhara origin, many of them seasonal workers on the area’s sesame and millet farms, had been subjected to “great fear and pressure” from the first day of the conflict, and had been prohibited from moving freely in the town.
On the morning of the attack, local police began shutting all exit points from Mai Kadra and checking identity cards of residents to “differentiate people of non-Tigray origin from the rest,” the report said, citing residents.
By the afternoon, a Tigrayan youth group identified in the report as “Samri,” together with local police and militiamen, went to a neighbourhood in the town where most non-Tigrayans live, it said.
The attack began with the execution of an Amhara farmer, who was killed in front of his family before his house was burned down and his corpse set on the fire, the report said, citing interviews with the man’s wife and eyewitnesses.
Samri members, helped by police and militia, then went from house to house carrying out attacks, it said.
“They killed hundreds of people, beating them with batons, sticks, stabbing them with knives, machetes and hatchets and strangling them with ropes. They also looted and destroyed properties,” the report said.
Reuters was not able to independently verify any details about the group referred to as Samri in the report.
Some Tigrayan residents helped neighbours to survive by sheltering them in their homes, in churches and in farms, the report said.
The commission said its report was compiled after a team of human rights experts visited Mai Kadra between Nov 14-19, taking testimony from victims, witnesses and first responders.
The commission is headed by Daniel Bekele, a former political prisoner appointed by Abiy last year. Bekele held senior positions at watchdogs Human Rights Watch and Amnesty before coming home to take up the post.
(Editing by William Maclean, Jon Boyle and Nick Tattersall)