UN, Ethiopian rights body demands civilians be protected
The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) on Saturday added to UN calls for "urgent measures" to protect and assist civilians in Tigray, where damage to key infrastructure is exacerbating the imminent threat of famine caused by the eight-month conflict.
Millions are at risk of starvation as the brutal civil war reaches a turning point, with thousands of captured Ethiopian government troops arriving in the Tigrayan capital Mekele as the pre-war administration reasserts control.
Tigray has been the scene of fighting since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent the army in early November to topple the dissident regional authorities, which emerged from the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).
The 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner accused them of orchestrating attacks on Ethiopian military bases.
After early successes and a premature declaration of victory, government forces were bogged down in a vicious and months-long battle with pro-TPLF fighters - the Tigray Defence Forces, or TDF. The Ethiopian army was backed by troops from the neighbouring Amhara region and the army of Eritrea, which borders Tigray.
On Monday, the TDF recaptured Mekele, held by the Ethiopian army since 28 November.
The government in Addis Ababa immediately declared a unilateral ceasefire, but this was derided as a "joke" by the rebel forces, which vowed to continue fighting.
A large number of Ethiopian army prisoners arrived in Mekele on Friday, on foot and in trucks, an AFP journalist in the city reported.
According to the TDF, more than 7,000 Ethiopian soldiers marched for four days from the town of Abdi Eshir, 75 kilometres (50 miles) southwest of Mekele.
The leaders of the former regional government, including its chairman Debretsion Gebremichael, have returned to the Tigrayan capital after months of being hunted by the Ethiopian army.
The TDF is now expected to direct its efforts towards the western and southern parts of the region, which were annexed early in the conflict by Amhara forces.
The Amharas believe the TPLF illegally seized these areas in the early 1990s.
NGOs and UN agencies on Friday expressed alarm at the destruction of two bridges crucial to accessing Tigray.
According to the UN, one of the two bridges was reportedly destroyed by Amhara forces, although the government blamed the Tigrayan forces on Friday.
Accused of trying to prevent humanitarian aid from reaching the region, the federal government denied any responsibility.
"The safety and security of civilians must remain a priority," the independent but government-affiliated EHRC said, urging "urgent measures".
The commission said it was concerned "the cutting off of electricity, telecommunications and water services in several areas of the region is putting a strain on living conditions".
"The destruction of civilian infrastructure is totally unacceptable," UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said on Saturday.
"It is essential to have a real ceasefire paving the way for a dialogue able to bring a political solution," he said.
Friday saw the Security Council hold its first public meeting on the conflict.
Ramesh Rajasingham, Acting Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief said more than 400,000 people had "crossed the famine threshold" in the region and a further 1.8 million people were "on the brink of starvation".
"We need to reach them now. Not next week. Now," he said.
Civilians are paying a heavy price in this conflict, marked by numerous accounts of massacres, rape and people forced from their homes.
The EHRC called on all parties to respect the ceasefire to allow the distribution of humanitarian aid and to allow farmers to return to cultivation of crops.
The pre-war Tigrayan government pledged on Friday to support the UN and organisations "working to provide vital assistance" to Tigrayans, saying it was "committed to facilitating humanitarian access"
In Addis Ababa, the commission also said it was monitoring reports of "arrests of media personnel and residents of Tigray ethnic origin suspected of connection with the ongoing situation in the region", pointing to a "risk of ethnic profiling".