Troops allied against Ethiopia’s central government are on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, a diplomatic source told CNN Wednesday, a day after authorities announced a nationwide state of emergency and called on citizens to take up arms to defend the capital.
The spreading conflict comes as the United Nations condemned possible “war crimes” uncovered in a joint investigation into the bloody year-long war in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.
The highly anticipated report was published almost a year to the day since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military offensive against Tigray’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Twelve months on, the fighting has left thousands dead, displaced more than 2 million people from their homes, fueled famine and given rise to a wave of atrocities.
Now, with combined rebel forces edging closer to Addis Ababa, fears are growing that the conflict could spiral into all-out war.
A senior diplomatic source in Ethiopia told CNN on Wednesday that fighters from the Tigray Defense Force (TDF) and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) were on the outskirts of the capital. The OLA is an outlawed armed group from Oromia, the country’s most populous region.
The source added that the rebels had the firepower to be inside the city within hours, if they chose to be, but would prefer to wait for an agreement to be put in place.
The rapid advance of the fighters, who said Sunday they had seized two key towns on the road to Addis Ababa, has raised concerns among Ethiopia’s leaders that the capital could fall. Abiy has urged citizens to take up arms and fight the Tigrayan forces. “Our people should march … with any weapon and resources they have to defend, repulse and bury the terrorist TPLF,” Abiy said in a Facebook post Sunday.
The post was later taken down by Facebook. “We were made aware of a post by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister and removed this for violating our policies against inciting and supporting violence,” a spokesperson for Facebook-owner Meta Company said in a statement.
Abiy doubled down on that rhetoric in a speech at the Ethiopian military’s headquarters on Wednesday, where he pledged to bury his government’s enemies “with our blood and bones and make the glory of Ethiopia high again.”
Addis Ababa’s city administration was instructing residents on Wednesday to register their weapons and gather in local neighborhoods to “safeguard” their surroundings, Reuters reported.
It marks a dramatic escalation in the Tigray conflict, which has spilled over into ethnic violence in neighboring regions and has the potential to pull Africa’s second-most populous country apart.
The joint investigation by the UN Human Rights Office and Ethiopia’s state-appointed human rights commission (EHRC) released on Wednesday offers the most comprehensive look to date into the conflict’s impact on civilians, detailing extra-judicial killings, torture, sexual and gender-based violence, violations against refugees, and forced displacement.
The investigation draws from interviews with 269 victims and witnesses of alleged violations, who detail horrific abuses. A family of four killed in the Tigrayan capital Mekelle as their house was shelled. A 26-year-old woman in Adet, who said she was gang-raped by Eritrean soldiers in front of her 3-year-old daughter. A man in Mai Kadra attacked by a Tigrayan youth group with machetes, shot in the back and thrown into a fire. A Tigrayan fighter who said she saw Ethiopian soldiers torture prisoners at a military camp with electric cables, plastic-covered metal rods and wooden sticks.
It is the only human rights probe to have been allowed into the blockaded Tigray region since fighting broke out, and may be the best shot that the international community has at establishing the facts on the ground.
Yet the UN and EHRC stopped short of calling the conflict in Tigray a genocide or laying blame for human rights violations at the feet of one group.
Instead, the joint investigative team said that all parties to the conflict, including forces from Eritrea and Ethiopia’s Amhara region allied with the government, had “committed violations of international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law, some of which may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity,” to varying degrees.
Human Rights Watch, which has been calling for the UN Security Council to consider taking concrete action in response to the conflict, including targeted sanctions, said the report was “not an exhaustive account” of atrocities in Ethiopia, and called for a more robust, independent investigation into ongoing abuses.
At a news conference on the report in Geneva, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet was asked pointedly whether she could attribute the majority of atrocities to one armed group or groups fighting in Tigray. She replied that, during the period of the investigation, “big numbers of the violations of human rights are linked to the Ethiopian and Eritrean defense forces, but we have seen that since the ceasefire there have been huge allegations of abuses by the Tigrayan forces and continue until today.”
Eritrea refused to engage with investigators and, to date, has not responded to requests for a meeting, according to Bachelet.
Among their recommendations to the Ethiopian government, the joint investigative team has called for investigations by “independent and impartial bodies” into alleged human rights violations and “to hold those responsible accountable.”
Prime Minister Abiy said Wednesday in a statement posted on Facebook that he accepted the report, despite “serious reservations,” adding that the findings “clearly established the claim of genocides as false and utterly lacking of any factual basis.” He also said a civil-military investigative unit would be established to follow up on the report’s allegations. The Ethiopian government previously said that some soldiers were put on trial for rape and killing.
That assessment was echoed by EHRC head Daniel Bekele, who told reporters at a press conference in Addis Ababa on Wednesday that the violations identified “may amount to crimes against humanity or war crimes and a number of other violations, but not genocide.”
The joint investigation is a rare partnership that has raised eyebrows among Tigrayans, human rights groups and other observers, who have flagged concerns about its independence from government influence. But the UN on Wednesday reaffirmed its impartiality.
“Of course, it is impartial … the report stands for itself,” Bachelet said during the Geneva news conference, adding: “We did not come under pressure from the government.”
But she acknowledged that investigators were hampered by restricted access to some sites in Tigray, where eyewitnesses and rights groups say some of the worst atrocities of the conflict have been perpetrated.
Bachelet also confirmed that a UN human rights officer who worked on the report was among seven UN officials declared “persona non grata” and expelled from Ethiopia last month on accusations of “meddling in domestic issues” – a claim that she rejected.
The investigative team visited several locations in Tigray, including the capital Mekelle and the northern town of Humera.
Separate investigations by CNN and The Telegraph in September revealed that Tigrayans in Humera were being thrown into makeshift prison camps, tortured, killed and their corpses thrown into a nearby river. But the report does not mention the camps, or extra-judicial killings there.
And, more glaringly, investigators did not appear to go to areas where some of the worst atrocities carried out in the war have been reported. Reports by CNN, Amnesty International and others uncovered evidence of massacres carried out by Eritrean forces in the Tigrayan village of Dengelat and holy city of Axum late last year. Another CNN investigation revealed details of a massacre committed by Ethiopian soldiers in the Tigrayan town of Mahibere Dego in January. It is not clear that the joint investigative team traveled to any of these towns.
Bachelet told the UN Human Rights Council in September that deployments to east and central Tigray, including to Axum “could not proceed” due to “sudden changes in the security situation.”
The report covers the toll on civilians from the beginning of the conflict last November until June 2021, when the Ethiopian government declared a unilateral ceasefire after Tigrayan forces retook Mekelle.
But the TPLF categorically ruled out a truce, and the fighting has spread beyond Tigray’s borders into the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions.
Now, Tigrayan forces say they have joined forces with the OLA – a historic alliance of former enemies – and captured the key towns of Dessie and Kombolcha in Ahmara, on the main road to the Ethiopian capital.
As the rebel forces push the front line further south, foreign governments and the UN have voiced their concern over the deteriorating situation.
Bachelet told CNN Wednesday she was “very concerned” about the recent escalation of violence in the multi-ethnic federation, “that could lead to a real civil war with a lot of bloodshed and with a lot more pain and suffering.” It also risks fragmenting Ethiopia as a state, she said.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday said Washington was alarmed over reports that Tigrayan forces had taken over the two towns, and urged all parties to begin ceasefire negotiations.
US special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, will travel to Ethiopia on Thursday and Friday, a State Department spokesperson confirmed Wednesday, saying: “The United States is increasingly troubled by the expansion of combat operations and intercommunal violence in Ethiopia and is closely monitoring the situation.”
Senior Biden administration officials have warned that Ethiopia will lose access to a lucrative US trade program due to human rights violations unless it takes significant steps toward ending the ongoing conflict and alleviating the humanitarian crisis by the start of 2022.
The US administration is also preparing to issue sanctions against parties to the conflict, under an executive order signed by President Joe Biden in September, according to the officials.
Eliza Mackintosh wrote and reported from London. CNN’s Nima Elbagir, Stephanie Halasz, Sharon Braithwaite and Schams Elwazer in London, Richard Roth in New York and Jennifer Hansler in Washington, DC, contributed to this report.