Government-affiliated commission says local youth group with help from police and militia responsible for mass killings on November 9.
At least 600 civilians were killed in an ethnically-driven massacre earlier this month in the town of Mai Kadra in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, the country’s human rights body has said following an investigation.
Tigray has witnessed heavy fighting since November 4, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched an assault against the regional government after alleged attacks by Tigrayan security forces against the central government’s military posts in the northern region.
Since then, information has been hard to obtain and verify, with communications cut and access to Tigray tightly controlled. Both sides have been accused of committing atrocities against civilians, with thousands of people believed to have been killed so far and tens of thousands displaced.
The killings in Mai Kadra on November 9 were first reported by rights watchdog Amnesty International three days later, sparking fears of war crimes being committed as fighting intensified. On November 14, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) dispatched a team of experts to the region for an investigation that ran until November 19.
On Tuesday, the government-appointed but independent body said it had found that the killings were carried out by a local youth group called Samri, with the support of other Tigrayan civilians, police, and militia.
Citing sources, including witnesses, first respondents, and survivors, the EHRC said it estimated at least 600 civilians were killed in Mai Kadra but added that the death toll was likely to be higher.
According to the EHRC’s report, which could not be independently verified, a number of people from different ethnic groups were killed in Mai Kadra but the attackers specifically targeted ethnic Amharas and Wolkaits based, among other things, on their identification cards.
“The local militia and police security apparatus joined forces with members of the Samri group to carry out door-to-door raids and kill hundreds of people they identified as ethnic ‘Amharas and Wolkait origin’, by beating them with sticks, stabbing them with knives, machetes and hatchets and strangling them with ropes,” the EHRC’s report said.
Tigray’s rulers, from the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), have previously rejected any responsibility for the Mai Kadra massacre.
In its report on November 12, Amnesty said it had not been able to confirm who was responsible for the killings but the witnesses it had spoken to blamed forces loyal to the TPLF.
Meanwhile, some of the 40,000 people who have fled to neighbouring Sudan have alleged mass killings perpetrated by government forces, including with machetes and axes.
“The government wants to get rid of the Tigray people, so we fled. The people are living in the conflict there,” Gowru Awara, an Ethiopian refugee in Sudan’s Gadarif state, told Al Jazeera last week.
“People have been slaughtered with knives. Pregnant women have had their bellies opened. The government is bombing civilians and killing us all.”
Human Rights Watch earlier this month expressed concern that the government’s actions “may increase the discrimination, hostility, or violence toward ordinary Tigrayans, including those with perceived connections to the TPLF”, read one of its reports.
The government denies targeting civilians in its campaign against the TPLF and rejects allegations of discrimination against ethnic Tigrayans as “a total lie”.