Amnesty International said Thursday that scores of civilians were killed in a "massacre" in Ethiopia's Tigray region 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 Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) party and the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of last year's Nobel Peace Prize.
The Amnesty report came the same day Abiy said government forces had made gains in western Tigray, and as thousands of Ethiopians continued to flee across the border into neighbouring Sudan, stoking fears of a humanitarian crisis.
"Amnesty International can today confirm... that scores, and likely hundreds, of people were stabbed or hacked to death in Mai-Kadra (May Cadera) town in the South West Zone of Ethiopia's Tigray Region on the night of 9 November," the rights group said in a report.
Amnesty said 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.
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.
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 been under a communications blackout ever since.
Officials say hundreds have been killed and analysts are warning of a bloody, protracted civil war in Africa's second most populous country.
- Fleeing refugees -
In a Facebook post Thursday, Abiy said government forces had "liberated" the western zone of Tigray -- made up of six zones, plus 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 air strikes targeting arms and fuel depots along with heavy fighting in western Tigray.
The UN says some 11,000 Ethiopians have sought refuge in neighbouring Sudan, which says it will house the influx in a camp for victims of a 1980s famine.
Exhausted refugees, mostly women, youths and children, arrived on foot or by bicycle and motorised rickshaw, a correspondent for AFP reported from the Hamdait border area of Sudan's eastern Kassala state.
Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has called for a "stop to the fighting as soon as possible" and a return to the negotiating table.
The African Union has also called for an immediate stop to fighting and dialogue.
But Ethiopia reiterated Thursday that the "cruelty" of the TPLF "cannot be addressed or redressed by sitting at a table for a negotiation".
Lawmakers have approved a plan to install a "caretaker administration" in Tigray assuming the federal government can assert control over the region.
On Thursday they voted to lift the immunity of 39 TPLF members including Tigray regional president Debretsion Gebremichael, though the significance of the move was unclear given that TPLF MPs resigned en masse last month.
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".
- Humanitarian worries -
There are mounting worries about how Tigray's population is faring.
The United Nations on Thursday called for Ethiopia to provide full humanitarian access to Tigray and enable civilians to flee safely, after warning the day before that otherwise "food, health and other emergency supplies have no way to make it into the region".
Spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters Ethiopia humanitarian coordinator Catherine Sozi was discussing "immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access" with the government.
"We are also calling for the safe passage for civilians in search of safety and assistance and to guarantee the security for all aid workers," he said.
Abiy said on Facebook that "the army is giving humanitarian aid" in western Tigray.
William Davison, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, said the TPLF had "significant support" from the people and efforts to remove them would meet "considerable resistance".
Long-running tensions between Abiy and the TPLF hit a new low in September when Tigray pressed ahead with its own elections, insisting Abiy was an illegitimate leader after national polls were postponed due to the coronavirus.
Hundreds turned out Thursday morning in the capital Addis Ababa for a blood drive to support troops fighting in Tigray.
"The attack done by TPLF to our army is shameful for Ethiopia. Never happened in our history. We want to condemn this," Mayor Adanech Abebe told AFP as she donated blood.