“If confirmed as having been deliberately carried out by a party to the current fighting, these killings of civilians would of course amount to war crimes,” Michelle Bachelet said in a statement on Friday, calling for “full accountability”.
Ethiopia’s central government launched a military operation in the northern Tigray region last week, accusing the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) ruling party of attacking military bases.
Rights group Amnesty said on Thursday that scores of civilians had been killed by forces backing the TPLF – claims denied as “baseless” by the party.
Bachelet expressed alarm at reports that water and electricity supplies had been cut and called for both sides to begin peace talks, saying “there will be no winner” if fighting continues.
“A protracted internal conflict will inflict devastating damage on both Tigray and Ethiopia as a whole undoing years of vital development progress,” she said.
“It could, in addition, all too easily spill across borders, potentially destabilising the whole sub-region.”
The UN refugee agency said in a statement on Friday that clashes in Ethiopia had prompted more than 14,500 people to flee into neighbouring Sudan since early November.
Swift end to Ethiopia conflict a daydream: Tigray leader
Meanwhile, the leader of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region said on Friday it was a “daydream” to think federal forces would soon prevail in the escalating conflict, warning of large-scale displacement and civilian casualties.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, ordered military operations in Tigray last week.
He said he was responding to attacks on two federal military camps by the region’s ruling party, the TPLF – accusations the party denies.
A communications blackout in Tigray has made it difficult to verify competing claims on the ground, but Abiy on Thursday vowed to deliver a decisive win “in a relatively short period of time”.
“This is a daydream, just a daydream,” Tigrayan leader Debretsion Gebremichael told AFP Friday when asked about Abiy’s comments.
“We are proud people who can defend ourselves. This is a burial ground for invaders.”
Concerns over safety of civilians
There are mounting worries about how Tigray’s population is faring after intensified fighting and several rounds of air strikes that Abiy’s government says targeted fuel and weapons depots.
The United Nations on Thursday called for Ethiopia to provide full humanitarian access to Tigray and enable civilians to leave safely.
While thousands have already crossed the border into neighbouring Sudan, Debretsion said hundreds of thousands had been displaced within Tigray.
He also said civilians had been killed in government airstrikes in Mekele, the regional capital, and in the city of Adigrat close to the border with Eritrea.
These incidents could not be independently verified, nor could Debretsion’s claim – denied by the central government – that forces from neighbouring Eritrea have been involved in the fighting.
“People are running in every corner. So the most important consequence of the conflict currently is displacement. Of course there are casualties, but we don’t have the numbers. This is too big to manage,” Debretsion said.
“This is baseless. It cannot be related to us,” Debretsion said of the Amnesty report.
“We have our values, we have our norms. We know how to handle people.”
Ethiopian state media reported on Thursday night that an arrest warrant had been issued for Debretsion and other TPLF leaders.
On Friday Abiy’s office announced the appointment of Mulu Nega, an education official, as chief executive of a caretaker administration Abiy’s government intends to set up in Tigray.