U.S. warns of further action against Ethiopia, Eritrea over Tigray

By Daphne Psaledakis and Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A senior U.S. State Department official warned on Thursday that Ethiopia and Eritrea should anticipate further actions from the United States if those stoking the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region fail to reverse course.

Thousands have been killed and about 2 million people forced from their homes in Tigray after conflict erupted between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the Ethiopian military in November. Troops from the neighboring Amhara region and the nation of Eritrea entered the war to support the government.

The State Department’s Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs Robert Godec said in testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the security situation in Tigray has worsened in recent weeks, adding that atrocities have been committed by all armed actors.

Eritrea’s information minister, Yemane Gebremeskel, and Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesman Dina Mufti did not respond to calls and messages requesting comment on the remarks on Thursday.

“Should those stoking the conflict fail to reverse course, Ethiopia and Eritrea should anticipate further actions. It cannot be ‘business-as-usual’ in the face of the violence and atrocities in Tigray,” Godec said.

Godec said that while the ethnic conflict in Tigray is the worst in Ethiopia, it is only one, citing attacks on ethnic Amharans, Gumuz and Oromo, as well as other violence.

“The government’s response of mass arrests, media restrictions, human rights violations, and declining political space is fueling inter-communal rivalry and imperiling the national elections now scheduled for June 21,” Godec said.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis and Patricia ZengerleEditing by Chizu Nomiyama and Frances Kerry)

Almost 5,000 children separated in Tigray conflict – aid group

By Ayenat Mersie

NAIROBI (Reuters) – Conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region has separated nearly 5,000 children from their parents, Save the Children said on Tuesday.

Many children now live in crowded conditions, often sleeping in rooms with dozens of unrelated adults, leaving them vulnerable to abuse, Save the Children said.

Fighting between the federal government and forces in the northern region broke out in November and is believed to have killed thousands and displaced more than a million people.

Save the Children’s account was borne out by one young girl, who told Reuters how she had come home to find both her parents gone.

Freweyni, a seven-year-old from the town of Mai Kadra, lost track of her parents and her siblings when ethnic killings began. Reuters is withholding her last name for privacy reasons.

“Our neighbors came and said ‘Run, people may kill you,'” she told Reuters in March at a school sheltering displaced families in the regional capital Mekelle.

Her father stayed with her sick grandmother but told her to run. When she returned home, neither her parents nor her grandmother were there; she hasn’t seen them since, she said.

Freweyni, now cared for by a neighbor, was one of 45 separated children sheltering in the Kasinet High School, where people cram into crowded classrooms or camp under trees.

Many said they ate only one meal a day because there’s not enough aid. The humanitarian response has been hampered by continued fighting in some areas, the United Nations says.

The government has said it has supplied 70% of the food aid sent so far and is racing to rebuild infrastructure.

Communications are still a challenge: phone lines in some areas have been down since the conflict began; even major towns such as Shire, home to tens of thousands of displaced families, can have their road and phone connections disrupted for weeks.

“Protection systems that would normally support separated children have been almost totally disrupted due to the conflict,” said Magdalena Rossman, protection advisor for Save the Children.

One 11-year-old girl and her little brother lost their family in fighting, but managed to reunite with their 23-year-old brother, Save the Children said. He had fled to Sudan but came back searching for them. Their parents are still alive but unable to reach the children.

“When the war started, everything went bad,” the 11-year-old said. “There was always the sound of guns and armed men.”

“I want to be with my parents again. I still feel afraid.”

(Reporting by Ayenat Mersie and Katharine Houreld; Editing by Giles Elgood)

U.S. looks into reports of atrocities in Ethiopia’s Tigray region

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is looking into reports of human rights abuses and atrocities in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, the U.S. State Department said on Monday.

Department spokesman Ned Price told a news briefing that the United States is “gravely concerned” about accounts last week by CNN and the BBC of a massacre in the region by Ethiopian forces.

“We are, of course, looking into these reports. We have taken close note of them and we’ll continue to pay close attention,” Price said.

“We strongly condemn the killings, the forced removals, the sexual assaults, the other human rights abuses that multiple organizations have reported,” Price added, declining to say who the United States believed was responsible.

Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry has said a joint investigation with external experts into alleged human rights violations would start soon.

Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country, is struggling to control several flashpoints where ethnic rivalries over land, power and resources have ignited ahead of national elections scheduled for June.

Price also welcomed an Ethiopian foreign ministry pledge that Eritrean troops would withdraw from Tigray, calling such a withdrawal an important step forward in de-escalation in the region.

Eritrea and Ethiopia denied the presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray for months, despite dozens of eyewitness accounts. G7 countries including the United States called on Friday for a swift, unconditional and verifiable withdrawal of the Eritrean soldiers, followed by a political process acceptable to all Ethiopians.

“The immediate and complete withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Tigray will be an important step forward in de-escalating the conflict and restoring peace and regional stability,” Price told reporters.

(Reporting by Simon Lewis and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Chris Reese and Will Dunham)

G7 countries urge independent probe into alleged rights abuses in Ethiopia’s Tigray

By Foo Yun Chee

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The United States, Germany, France and other G7 countries called on Friday for an independent and transparent investigation into alleged human rights abuses during the conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.

Ethiopia’s federal army ousted the former regional ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), from the capital Mekelle in November.

Thousands of people died, hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes and there are shortages of food, water and medicine in the region. The government says most fighting has ceased but there are still isolated incidents of shooting.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said last week Eritrea has agreed to withdraw troops it had sent during the fighting into Ethiopian territory along their mutual border, amid mounting reports of human rights abuses. Eritrea has denied its forces joined the conflict.

The G7 foreign ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell expressed their concerns in a joint statement.

“All parties must exercise utmost restraint, ensure the protection of civilians and respect human rights and international law,” they said.

“It is essential that there is an independent, transparent and impartial investigation into the crimes reported and that those responsible for these human rights abuses are held to account,” the ministers said.

They said the withdrawal of Eritrean forces from Tigray must be swift, unconditional and verifiable and that a political process acceptable to all Ethiopians should be set up that leads to credible elections and a national reconciliation process.

Ethiopia’s foreign ministry said in March it was ready to work with international human rights experts to conduct investigations on allegations of abuses.

(Reporting by Foo Yun Chee; Editing by Peter Graff)

Egypt’s Sisi says response will be felt if water supply affected by dam

CAIRO (Reuters) – Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said on Tuesday that there would be severe regional consequences if Egypt’s water supply was impacted by a giant hydropower dam being built by Ethiopia.

“I’m not threatening anyone here, our dialogue is always reasonable and rational,” Sisi said in a response to a question about any risk to Egypt.

“I say once again no one can take a drop from Egypt’s water and if it happens there will be inconceivable instability in the region.”

(Reporting by Nadine Awadalla and Mahmoud Mourad; Editing by Aidan Lewis and Alison Williams)

Biden dispatches U.S. senator to Ethiopia over humanitarian crisis

By Daphne Psaledakis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden is sending Senator Chris Coons to Ethiopia to meet with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and convey the president’s “grave concerns” over the humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region, where thousands have died following fighting.

Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement on Thursday that Coons – a longtime Biden ally – would also consult with the African Union.

“Senator Coons will convey President Biden’s grave concerns about the humanitarian crisis and human rights abuses in the Tigray region and the risk of broader instability in the Horn of Africa,” Sullivan said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken this month described acts carried out in the region as ethnic cleansing, an allegation rejected by Ethiopia.

“(The accusation) is a completely unfounded and spurious verdict against the Ethiopian government,” Ethiopia’s foreign ministry said on March 13, reacting to the allegation of ethnic cleansing.

“Nothing during or after the end of the main law enforcement operation in Tigray can be identified or defined by any standards as a targeted, intentional ethnic cleansing against anyone in the region,” it said. “The Ethiopian government vehemently opposes such accusations.”

Coons, who is expected to depart on Thursday, said in a statement that he looked forward to engaging with Abiy and conveying Biden’s concern.

“The United States is gravely concerned by the deteriorating situation in the Tigray, which threatens the peace and stability of the Horn of Africa region,” Coons said.

Ethiopia’s federal army ousted the former regional ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), from the capital Mekelle in November, after what it said was a surprise assault on its forces in the region bordering Eritrea.

The government has said that most fighting has ceased but has acknowledged there are still isolated incidents of shooting.

Ethiopia and Eritrea have denied the involvement of Eritrean troops in the fighting alongside Ethiopian forces, although dozens of witnesses, diplomats and an Ethiopian general have reported their presence.

Thousands of people have died following the fighting, hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes and there are shortages of food, water and medicine in Tigray, a region of more than 5 million people.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis, Susan Heavey and Patricia Zengerle; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

‘People die at home’: Tigray medical services struggle after turmoil of war

By Reuters Staff

NAIROBI (Reuters) – A diabetic mother died as her daughter searched the capital of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region for insulin. Women gave birth unattended in the dark because their hospital had no electricity or staff at night.

Accounts from residents, medical workers and humanitarian groups illustrate people’s plight as Ethiopia struggles to revive a heavily damaged healthcare system in Tigray three months after fighting erupted between the military and the region’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Some hospitals are barely functioning, with no water, electricity or food, they said. Most were looted of medicines; staff members fled.

“The health system in Tigray is reportedly nearly collapsing,” the United Nation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a Feb. 4 report.

An assessment carried out this month by international aid agencies found that out of Tigray’s 40 hospitals, only 11 were fully functional. Fourteen were not working at all, nine were partly functioning and six were not assessed, the report said.

Ethiopian Health Minister Lia Tadesse said conditions were improving rapidly. The government has sent supplies to 70 of the region’s 250 health facilities, along with 10 ambulances, she told Reuters last week.

“So many health facilities have been looted, so we are working to get more equipment to the region,” she said. “The focus is to restore services, supporting health workers to come back and ensure they have the supplies.”

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared victory over the TPLF two months ago, but details of the devastation have been slow to emerge as communications to the region remain patchy, and the government tightly controls access for journalists and aid workers. Reuters has not been able to visit the region and could not independently verify accounts provided by residents and medical workers.

Prior to the outbreak of fighting on Nov. 4, most people in Tigray had easy access to a hospital or clinic, according to the Ministry of Health.

The conflict disrupted basic services, including diabetes treatment and maternal care, leading to “too many preventable deaths,” the International Committee of the Red Cross said in a Jan. 27 statement.

Only 30 of the region’s 280 ambulances are still available, according to OCHA.

One woman described searching the northern Tigray town of Sheraro, on Dec. 22 for pills to prevent pregnancy after a friend told her she had been gang-raped by five men.

“Not a single worker was in the hospital,” the woman told Reuters by phone, saying she was too afraid to be identified. “The whole hospital was looted … Apart from the roof and doors, nothing was left.”

She tried a health center, but said it too had been looted.

SLOW RECOVERY

When French aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) visited the northern city of Adigrat in mid-December, the hospital was mostly deserted, it said in statement last week. There were hardly any medicines, and no food, water or money.

Some injured patients were malnourished, the group’s emergency coordinator for Tigray, Albert Vinas, said in the statement.

Some services have since resumed, but the hospital still has no chemicals for its laboratory and no therapeutic food for malnourished children, an Ethiopian medical worker stationed there told Reuters on Saturday. He asked not to be identified, because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.

Hospitals in the towns of Adwa and Axum, in central Tigray, also had no electricity or water when MSF visited. All the medicines had been stolen from Adwa hospital and furniture and equipment broken, Vinas said.

“I saw people arrive at hospital on bicycles carrying a patient from 30 km (19 miles) away, and those were the ones who managed to get to hospital,” he said. “People die at home.”

MSF is now supporting four regional hospitals along with smaller health centers, and running mobile clinics in 15 locations.

RURAL AREAS OUT OF REACH

Most rural parts of Tigray remain out of reach to humanitarian groups because of continuing insecurity, or because they lack permission to go there, aid workers told Reuters. The TPLF withdrew from the regional capital Mekelle and major cities, but low-level fighting has continued in some areas.

Ethiopia’s Ministry of Peace said on Saturday that it was “moving with urgency to approve requests for international staff movements into and within Tigray” to ensure humanitarian assistance is expanded without delay.

A team from international aid group Action Against Hunger reached a town west of Mekelle for the first time on Jan. 23 and found it “pretty deserted”.

“We want to start having mobile health and nutrition clinics to operate in the rural areas,” the group’s country director Panos Navrozidis told Reuters, but added security was still fragile.

Staffing at medical facilities also remains a problem.

As many as 20 or 30 women were giving birth unattended daily in the central town of Shire because the hospital is not staffed overnight as healthcare workers are afraid of looters, an aid worker who visited last week told Reuters.

Almost all healthcare workers in Tigray had gone unpaid since the conflict began, a regional government report noted on Jan. 8, and three healthcare workers told Reuters last week they had still not been paid.

Health Minister Tadesse said money was being sent to local authorities as quickly as possible. Hospitals in Shire and Axum were functioning again, she said, although Adwa hospital remained out of service.

Help is coming too late for some.

One woman told Reuters her 55-year-old mother died in Mekelle on Dec. 4 after the family was unable to find insulin.

Mehbrit, who asked to be identified by one name for safety reasons, said she tried hospitals, the Ethiopian Red Cross Society and other diabetics, but no one had spare insulin.

For days, she said, she jolted awake each night to check her mother’s labored breathing.

“I was praying to God to bring mercy in the house,” Mehbrit said. “The insulin came 13 days after my mother died.”

Aid coming to north Ethiopia, refugees recount war suffering

ADDIS ABABA/HAMDAYET, Sudan (Reuters) – Relief agencies in Ethiopia prepared convoys on Thursday to truck aid into Tigray region, where a month of war is feared to have killed thousands of people and has forced refugees to flee along corpse-strewn roads.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared victory over the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) after federal forces captured the northern region’s capital Mekelle at the weekend.

However, TPLF leaders have dug into surrounding mountains in an emerging guerrilla strategy. “The war is a people’s war and will not end easily,” its spokesman Gebre Gebretsadkan said on Tigray TV, adding that fighting had continued round Mekelle.

One aid worker in touch with Tigray said clashes had been taking place to the north, south and west of the city. The government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Diplomats in touch with sources on all sides say thousands of combatants and civilians appear to have died since Abiy’s offensive began on Nov. 4, after a TPLF attack on a military base was the last straw in their feud.

More than 45,000 refugees have crossed into neighboring Sudan, while many more have been displaced within Tigray.

One refugee, who gave his name only as Abraham, saw corpses in civilian clothes as he fled the Tigrayan town of Humera towards the border with Sudan.

“Nobody can bury them, they were outside on the road,” he recounted from Hamdayet, a Sudanese border transit point.

WAR CHILD

Ethiopia’s government and the TPLF have both accused each other of – and both denied – targeting civilians.

The TPLF said it had destroyed government tanks and accused Eritrea of deploying troops to back Abiy. Eritrea’s government could not be reached for comment but has previously denied that.

Claims from all sides have been hard to verify while access to Tigray region was blocked and communications largely down, though internet and phone services were returning this week.

In Qadarif, also in Sudan, the mother of a newborn baby recounted how she had fled Tigray at eight months pregnant.

“While I was frightened and running away, that’s when the pain started,” said Atikilti Salem, breastfeeding her 22-day-old baby Abeyam.

“I found a small village and gave birth in the hospital … I wanted to call her Africa, but I instead named her after the doctor who delivered her … When the war is over … I’m going to tell her the story of how she was born.”

Ethiopian authorities and the United Nations agreed to move humanitarian aid into federal government-controlled areas of Tigray. Some 600,000 people relied on food handouts even before the fighting.

Food stocks are nearly empty for 96,000 Eritrean refugees in Tigray, aid agencies say, while medics in Mekelle are short of painkillers, gloves and body bags.

“There’s an acute shortage of food, medicine and other relief,” tweeted Norwegian Refugee Council head Jan Egeland, saying relief convoys were ready to go.

Tigray’s new government-appointed leader Mulu Nega said help was on its way to areas of west Tigray including Humera.

REFORM SETBACK?

The first video from Mekelle since its capture on Saturday, from state-run ETV, showed people shopping and sitting on stools.

“Life is getting back to normal … Everything is, as you can see, very peaceful,” one man said in the footage which Reuters could not independently verify.

Tigrayans have strongly supported the TPLF and seen them as war heroes from the 1991 overthrow of a Marxist dictatorship.

Analysts fear that Abiy’s political reforms, after he took office in 2018, could be set back by the conflict, and his tougher line against foes including jailing opposition figures this year.

He became prime minister after nearly three decades of TPLF-led government that had become increasingly repressive.

Abiy, who comes from the larger Oromo and Amharic ethnic groups, reduced Tigrayans from government and security posts, saying they were over-represented for a group making up 6% of the population.

The TPLF accuses their ex-military comrade and government coalition partner of trying to increase his personal power over Ethiopia’s 10 regions. Abiy denies that, calling them criminals who mutinied against federal authority.

(Reporting by Addis Ababa newsroom, David Lewis and Nazanine Moshiri in Nairobi, Maggie Fick in Istanbul, Seham Eloraby and Baz Ratner in Ahmdayet, Sudan; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

United Nations and Ethiopia reach aid pact for war-hit Tigray

ADDIS ABABA/NAIROBI (Reuters) – Ethiopia and the United Nations agreed on Wednesday to channel desperately-needed humanitarian aid to a northern region where a month of war has killed, wounded and uprooted thousands.

The pact, announced by U.N. officials, gives aid workers access to government-controlled areas of Tigray, where federal troops have been battling the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and captured the regional capital.

The war is believed to have killed thousands, sent 45,000 refugees into Sudan, displaced many more within Tigray and worsened suffering in a region where 600,000 people already depended on food aid even before the flare-up from Nov. 4.

As hundreds of foreign workers were forced to leave, aid agencies had appealed for urgent safe access.

Food is running out for 96,000 Eritrean refugees in Tigray.. And medics in the local capital Mekelle were short of painkillers, gloves and body bags, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said at the weekend.

“The U.N. and the Federal Government of Ethiopia have signed an agreement to ensure that humanitarians will have unimpeded, sustained and secure access … to areas under the control of the Federal Government in the Tigray Region,” U.N. humanitarian coordination agency OCHA said in a statement to Reuters.

The government has not commented on the agreement.

TELECOMS PARTLY RESTORED

After phone and internet connections were largely shut down when the war began, telecoms in half a dozen towns in Tigray were partly restored, Ethio Telecom said on Wednesday.

The state-run company said it was using alternative power sources and repairing network damage. Reconnected towns included Dansha, Humera and Mai Kadra, all controlled by the military.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared victory after Mekelle’s fall over the weekend, as TPLF leaders fled for the hills.

On Wednesday, he shifted focus to next year’s parliamentary election, meeting with political parties and election officials about the mid-2021 vote, his office said.

His government postponed it this year due to COVID-19, but Tigray went ahead anyway and re-elected the TPLF, a guerrilla movement-turned-political party.

That defiance was one reason for the federal government’s military offensive against TPLF leaders, a conflict that may jeopardize political reforms since Abiy took office in 2018.

Abiy, Africa’s youngest leader at 44 who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for a pact with Eritrea, was pictured in battle fatigues meeting military officers in photos tweeted by his official photographer on Wednesday.

He took Ethiopia’s top job after nearly three decades of a TPLF-led national government, which had become increasingly repressive, jailing opponents and banning opposition parties.

Abiy removed Tigrayans from government and security posts, saying they were over-represented for an ethnic group accounting for just 6% of Ethiopia’s population. The military went in when a federal army base was ambushed in Tigray.

ADDIS ABABA BLAST

The TPLF casts their former military comrade and partner in government as bent on dominating them to increase his personal grip over the vast nation of 115 million people, which is split into 10 regions run by different ethnic groups.

Abiy, who hails from the larger Oromo and Amharic ethic groups, calls the Tigrayan leaders criminals opposing national unity and plotting attacks in Addis Ababa and elsewhere.

Federal police blamed the TPLF, without offering proof, for a small blast in the capital on Wednesday that injured an officer lightly. There was no immediate response from the TPLF.

There has been little verifiable information from Mekelle, the highland city of 500,000 people, since it fell on Saturday.

TPLF leaders say they are continuing to fight from surrounding mountainous areas.

“Wars are not like taps that you turn on and then turn off. This is going to be a very long, drawn-out process,” Horn of Africa expert Rashid Abdi told an online forum.

(Reporting by Addis Ababa newsroom, David Lewis in Nairobi, Maggie Fick in Istanbul; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne and Tim Cocks; Editing by Maggie Fick and Alison Williams)

Both sides claim gains in Ethiopia war, Tigrayans accused of massacre

(Reuters) – Ethiopia’s state-appointed rights group accused a Tigrayan youth group on Tuesday of massacring hundreds of civilians as federal and local forces both claimed advances in a three-week war in the country’s mountainous north.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government said enemy soldiers were surrendering as it advanced towards the regional capital, but the Tigrayans reported they were resisting and had destroyed a prestigious army division.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission published findings into a Nov. 9 attack in Mai Kadra in southwest Tigray state – first reported by Amnesty International – where it said a youth group called Samri killed at least 600 people of the minority Amhara and Wolkait ethnic groups in the town.

Non-Tigrayans were beaten to death, stabbed, set on fire and strangled with ropes, the report said, though some residents protected neighbors by hiding them in homes. The commission accused local forces of colluding in the massacre.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was not immediately available but has previously denied involvement.

Reuters has been unable to verify statements made by either side since phone and internet connections to Tigray are down and access to the area is strictly controlled.

Since fighting began on Nov. 4, hundreds have died, more than 41,000 refugees have fled to Sudan, and there has been widespread destruction and uprooting of people from homes.

The war has spread to Eritrea, where the Tigrayans have fired rockets, and also affected Somalia where Ethiopia has disarmed several hundred Tigrayans in a peacekeeping force fighting al Qaeda-linked militants.

Abiy’s government said many Tigrayan combatants had responded to an ultimatum to lay down arms before a threatened offensive against Mekelle city, with half a million inhabitants.

The deadline expires on Wednesday.

“Using the government’s 72-hour period, a large number of Tigray militia and special forces are surrendering,” a government taskforce said.

‘TRAGIC CONFLICT’

The battle-hardened TPLF, which had ruled the region of more than 5 million people, gave a different version, saying their troops were keeping federal forces at bay and scoring victories.

Their spokesman Getachew Reda said an important army unit – which he named as the 21st mechanized division – was destroyed in an assault at Raya-Wajirat led by a former commander of that unit now fighting for the TPLF.

The prime minister’s spokeswoman Billene Seyoum denied that.

TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael has disputed the government version that Mekelle is encircled at a roughly 50km (30 mile) distance, telling Reuters the ultimatum was a cover for government forces to regroup after defeats.

The United States – which regards Ethiopia as a powerful ally in a turbulent region – France and Britain were the latest foreign powers to call for peace.

Washington backed African Union (AU) mediation efforts “to end this tragic conflict now”, while Paris and London warned against ethnic discrimination.

The U.N. Security Council was to hold informal talks later on Tuesday over Tigray, according to a U.N. source and an email.

Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for ending a standoff with Eritrea, has said he will not negotiate with the TPLF though he does plan to receive AU envoys.

OFFENSIVE

His predecessor, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, criticized international mediation efforts by “well-intentioned outsiders” that he said obscured the crimes of the TPLF and overestimated their importance in Ethiopian society.

“The key problem in the international community’s approach to Ethiopia is the assumption of moral equivalence, which leads foreign governments to adopt an attitude of false balance and bothsidesism” between the federal and Tigrayan sides, he wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.

Abiy, whose parents are from the larger Oromo and Amhara groups, denies any ethnic overtones to his offensive, saying he is pursuing criminals who ambushed federal forces.

The TPLF says he wants to subdue Tigray to amass power.

Since taking office in 2018, the prime minister has removed many Tigrayans from government and security posts and arrested some on rights abuse and corruption charges, even though he was their former military comrade and coalition partner.

The conflict threatens to destabilize the vast nation of 115 million people from myriad ethnic groups whose struggles for greater resources and power intensified when Abiy took office.

In Geneva, the U.N. human rights chief voiced alarm over reports of tank and artillery build-ups outside Mekelle.

“We have seen an Ethiopian colonel come out and say there will be no mercy. On the other side you have had the TPLF leadership say they are ready to die,” said Michelle Bachelet.

“This is the kind of rhetoric that is extremely worrying and that may provoke or may lead to serious violations of international humanitarian law.”

(Reporting by Addis Ababa newsroom, Omar Mohammed, Nazanine Moshiri, Maggie Fick and Katharine Houreld in Nairobi, Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge in Geneva; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by William Maclean and Giles Elgood)