NAIROBI, Kenya — Ethiopia on Wednesday said it is investigating “credible allegations of atrocities and human rights abuses” in its embattled Tigray region, including in the city of Axum, where The Associated Press and Amnesty International have separately documented a massacre of several hundred people.
The statement by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office comes days after Ethiopia referred to the killings in Axum as an “alleged incident,” and the country’s ambassador to Belgium told a webinar that “we suspect it’s a very, very crazy idea.”
A growing number of media reports are documenting massacres in other Tigray communities, citing witness accounts, as alarm grows over the fate of the region’s 6 million people.
And international pressure is growing on Africa’s second most populous country to allow independent investigations into atrocities committed during the conflict that began in November between Ethiopian and allied forces and those of the now-fugitive Tigray leaders who dominated Ethiopia’s government before Abiy took office in 2018.
Some of those allied forces are from neighboring Eritrea, one of the world’s most secretive countries and long an enemy of the former Tigray leaders. Ethiopia’s government denies their presence, even as some of the government-appointed interim Tigray leaders acknowledge it and several witnesses have described the soldiers’ killing and looting.
The United States has repeatedly called for Eritrean forces to leave Tigray immediately. In Washington’s strongest statement yet on Tigray, Secretary of State Antony Blinken over the weekend said the U.S. is “gravely concerned by reported atrocities and the overall deteriorating situation.”
Ethiopia replied that no foreign country should try to “dictate a sovereign nation’s internal affairs.”
The massacre in Axum in late November might be the deadliest of the Tigray conflict, with witnesses saying Eritrean forces killed several hundred people. The AP spoke with a church deacon who said he helped count the bodies, gathered victims’ identity cards and assisted with burials. He believes some 800 people were killed that weekend around the city.
The country’s most sacred Ethiopian Orthodox church in Axum, where local faithful believe the ancient Ark of the Covenant is housed.
The government-established Ethiopian Human Rights Commission is investigating allegations from Axum and elsewhere, and it has “signaled its willingness to collaborate with relevant U.N. agencies,” Ethiopia’s new statement said.
The United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet last week said the office is ready to support the EHRC if its monitors are granted access to the Tigray region.
Journalists also have pressed for access to Tigray, but in recent days several Ethiopians working with foreign media outlets were detained shortly after the outlets were allowed to enter. They were later released.
Ethiopia’s new statement said Ethiopian defense forces will “ensure the security” of journalists in areas in Tigray under the forces’ control, and any journalists leaving those areas “will not be hindered from mobility, but will do so at their own risk.”