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Ethiopian PM appoints new Tigray leader as Amnesty reports ‘massacre’

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia: Ethiopia’s parliament has appointed a new head of Tigray region as Amnesty International reported a “massacre” of scores of civilians in the conflict.

“Dr Mulu Nega has been appointed as the Chief Executive of the Tigray Regional State,” Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed posted on Twitter on Friday.

The announcement came as federal forces pressed a military offensive against leaders of the northern region whom the government accuses of treason and terrorism.

On Thursday, Ethiopian parliament stripped Tigray president Debretsion Gebremichael – who was elected in September and chairs the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – of immunity from prosecution.

State media later reported that arrest warrants had been issued against Debretsion and other TPLF leaders “for endangering the country’s existence” and “for trying to erode the constitution”, adding that dozens of other officials were also stripped of immunity.

Long-running tensions between Abiy and the TPLF hit a new low in September when Tigray pressed ahead with its elections, insisting Abiy was an illegitimate leader after national polls were postponed due to the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International said scores of civilians were killed in a “massacre” in Tigray that witnesses blamed on forces backing the local ruling party in its fight against the federal government. It was the first reported incident of large-scale civilian fatalities in a week-old conflict between the TPLF and the federal government led by Abiy, winner of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

Amnesty claimed it had “digitally verified gruesome photographs and videos of bodies strewn across the town or being carried away on stretchers”.

The dead “had gaping wounds that appear to have been inflicted by sharp weapons such as knives and machetes,” Amnesty said, citing witness accounts.

“The victims appear to have been civilians … labourers who are in no way involved in the ongoing military offensive in the region,” Amnesty’s Sam Dubberley said.

Witnesses said the attack was carried out by TPLF-aligned forces after a defeat at the hands of the Ethiopian military, though Amnesty said it “has not been able to confirm who was responsible for the killings”.

There was no immediate reaction from the TPLF, which dominated national politics for nearly three decades before Abiy took office in 2018.

Related story: Ethiopian military seizes airport in Tigray region amid escalating conflict

The Amnesty report came the same day Abiy said government forces had made gains in western Tigray as thousands of Ethiopians continued to flee across the border into neighbouring Sudan, stoking fears of a humanitarian crisis.

Abiy ordered military operations in Tigray on November 4, saying they were prompted by a TPLF attack on federal military camps – a claim the party denies.

The region has since been under a communications blackout in most areas.

Officials say hundreds have been killed and analysts are warning of a bloody, protracted civil war in Africa’s second-most populous country.

In a Facebook post on Thursday, Abiy said government forces had “liberated” the western zone of Tigray – made up of six zones, including the capital and surrounding areas.

Abiy also accused TPLF-aligned fighters of “cruelty”, saying that when the army took control of the town of Sheraro, they “found bodies of executed defence force personnel whose hands and feet were tied”.

Regional state media in Tigray countered that pro-TPLF forces had retaken territory earlier seized by federal forces.

The report also said TPLF forces had “captured” 10,000 soldiers.

The conflict has seen multiple rounds of airstrikes targeting arms and fuel depots along with heavy fighting in western Tigray.