Joe Biden expresses worry over escalating conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region

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Ethiopia’s government on Thursday said rebels have committed “serious crimes” after conflict broke out this month in the northern Tigray region, as U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s foreign policy adviser called for greater protection of civilians.

The conflict has killed hundreds, sent 30,000 refugees into neighbouring Sudan, and called into question whether Africa’s youngest leader Abiy Ahmed can hold together the fractious ethnic groups in Africa’s second most populous nation ahead of national elections next year.

The Ethiopian government statement referenced reports of ethnic killings in the town of Mai Kadra, documented by human rights group Amnesty International this week.

Survivors of the reported attack told Amnesty researchers that militias affiliated to the local Tigray government killed scores or even hundreds of civilians, some of whom were ethnic Amharas.

Information from all sides has been impossible to verify because internet and phone connections to Tigray have been suspended and the government has restricted access to the area.

“As we enter the final phase of law enforcement operations against this group, we would like to remind the leaders of this group that the atrocities that have been committed by their forces and loyalists in places like Maykadra constitute serious crimes both under Ethiopian and international law,” the statement said, using an alternative spelling.

There was no immediate response from the leadership of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which is leading the rebellion.

On Thursday, Antony Blinken, the foreign policy advisor to U.S. president Joe Biden, called for more protection for civilians.

“Deeply concerned about the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia, reports of targeted ethnic violence, and the risk to regional peace and security. The TPLF and Ethiopian authorities should take urgent steps to end the conflict, enable humanitarian access, and protect civilians,” he tweeted.

The Ethiopian government statement came a day after arrest warrants were issued for 76 military officials that the government said were affiliated with the Tigray leadership.

Ethiopian federal forces are trying to advance along main roads from the south and the northwest of Mekelle and had got to within around 200 km (124 miles) of the Tigrayan capital, a diplomat monitoring the conflict said.

The conflict has also embroiled Ethiopia’s neighbours. the TPLF fired rockets at neighbouring Eritrea last weekend and tens of thousands of refugees have streamed into Sudan.

Tigray civilians in Sudan last week told Reuters that they were targeted by government-affiliated militia because of their ethnicity. Their claims were also impossible to verify.