NAIROBI (Reuters) – Armed forces from Ethiopia’s Amhara region have stepped up killings, mass detentions and expulsions of ethnic Tigrayans in neighbouring western Tigray, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Thursday.

Amhara regional spokesman Gizachew Muluneh did not respond to requests for comment. Ethiopian government spokesman Legesse Tulu said Tigrayan forces were to blame for any atrocities, although there are no reports of Tigrayan forces in the area.

Western Tigray has seen some of the worst violence in the year-long conflict pitting the federal government and its allies from the Amhara region against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which used to rule Ethiopia.

Both Amhara and Tigray claim the fertile fields of western Tigray, which are now controlled by Amhara forces and the Ethiopian military. The United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs has said that 1.2 million people have been forced out of western Tigray since the conflict began, including more than 10,000 forced out in the last week of November.

Amnesty and HRW said they interviewed 31 people in western Tigray by phone in November and December, who described a surge of abuses by Amhara security forces and militias.

“Tigrayan civilians attempting to escape the new wave of violence have been attacked and killed. Scores in detention face life-threatening conditions including torture, starvation, and denial of medical care,” the groups said in a joint statement.

They said Amhara regional police and volunteer civilian militia known as Fano were expelling Tigrayans from the towns of Adebai, Humera and Rawyan. Six witnesses said Amhara forces shot at Tigrayans fleeing roundups in Adebai.

“When the people tried to escape… (the Fano) attacked them with machetes and axes,” the statement quoted a 34-year-old farmer as saying.

“We were passing bodies and we were all in shock … After we calmed down, we noticed that there were more bodies there too. Everywhere you turned, there would be five, 10 bodies.”

Legesse, the government spokesman, told Reuters any abuses were committed by Tigrayan forces.

“There is no Amhara security forces in western Tigray that are responsible for the accusations mentioned above,” he said.

All sides in the conflict have committed abuses, rights groups say. Days after war broke out in November 2020, mass killings were reported in western Tigray, including the Mai Kadra massacre, when Tigrayans killed hundreds of Amhara civilians and then Tigrayans were killed in retaliation.

HRW said last week that Tigrayan forces had summarily executed dozens of civilians in two towns they controlled in the Amhara region between Aug. 31 and Sept. 9.

The United Nations Human Rights Council will hold a session on Friday on possible war crimes committed in the conflict.

(Reporting by Elias Biryabarema, editing by Estelle Shirbon and Philippa Fletcher)

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