Ethiopia rejects US calls to pull troops from Tigray after CNN investigation into massacre

Ethiopia on Monday rejected a call from the United States to pull regional forces out of the country’s Tigray region, and defended the deployment of some of those troops amid reports of human rights violations.

The exchange between Ethiopia and the US comes after investigations were published by CNN and Amnesty International into the massacre of civilians in two separate assaults in Tigray late last year.

On Saturday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US was “gravely concerned by reported atrocities and the overall deteriorating situation” and called for “the immediate withdrawal of Eritrean forces and Amhara regional forces from Tigray.”

Ethiopia’s foreign ministry criticized Blinken’s remarks on Monday. “An attempt by the US to make pronouncements on Ethiopia’s internal affairs and specifically, the reference to the Amhara regional forces redeployment … is regrettable,” the ministry said, referring to forces from Ethiopia’s Amhara state, which neighbors Tigray.

“It should be clear that such matters are the sole responsibility of the Ethiopian government, which as a sovereign nation, is responsible to deploy the necessary security structures and means available in ensuring the rule of law within all corners of its borders.”

The foreign ministry said it was “fully committed” to investigating any human rights violations. But the statement did not mention the widely reported presence of forces from neighboring Eritrea during the recent offensive. Those forces been blamed for many abuses in Tigray during the recent conflict — allegations the Eritrean government denies.

Thousands of civilians are believed to have been killed since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military operation against Tigray’s ruling faction, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), in November.

On Friday, CNN published an investigation into one massacre that took place in Tigray on November 30. Eyewitnesses told CNN that a group of Eritrean soldiers opened fire on Maryam Dengelat church in Dengelat village, eastern Tigray, while hundreds of congregants were celebrating mass. Dozens of people died over three days of mayhem, with soldiers slaughtering local residents, displaced people and pilgrims, they said.

Amnesty International charged in a report Friday that Eritrean forces killed hundreds of unarmed civilians in the city of Axum in November through indiscriminate shelling and shooting and extrajudicial killings, in what the human rights organization said could amount to a crime against humanity.

Eritrea’s government denied involvement in the atrocities reported by Amnesty, but has yet to respond to CNN’s request for comment in relation to the Dengelat massacre.

Blinken, in his press statement Saturday, called on Ethiopia country to allow “full, independent international investigation into all reports of human rights violations, abuses and atrocities.”

“We strongly condemn the killings, forced removals and displacements, sexual assaults, and other extremely serious human rights violations and abuses by several parties that multiple organizations have reported in Tigray.” He added that “those responsible for them must be held accountable.”

Blinken also acknowledged Abiy’s stated commitment to allow humanitarian aid to the region, and said that the US Agency for International Development would send a disaster assistance response team to Ethiopia.

After seizing control of Tigray’s main cities in late November, Abiy declared victory and maintained that no civilians were harmed in the offensive. Abiy has also denied that soldiers from Eritrea crossed into Tigray to support Ethiopian forces.

On Monday, Ethiopia’s foreign ministry said it was working to ensure unfettered access to Tigray for the delivery of humanitarian assistance.