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Reports Of Mass Killings Point To Desperate Situation In Ethiopia's Civil War

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Ethiopia has been gripped by civil war for almost five months now, and while access to the conflict zone has been severely limited, the information that is coming out points to an increasingly desperate situation. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports. And just a note - listeners may find some details disturbing.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Over the past few weeks, activists have filled messaging platforms with dozens of videos they say show barbaric attacks in northern Ethiopia. One video shows mothers crying over the bodies of their dead sons; another appears to show a rebel fighter being shot point-blank by a man in military uniform.

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PERALTA: Yet another video shows troops speaking Amharic and interrogating about a dozen men dressed in civilian clothes. Why were you hiding in the forest, the troops ask.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Amharic).

PERALTA: Then the soldiers march the men to the edge of a ravine and open fire. The men in military uniforms fling the dead bodies into the ravine with glee.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Amharic).

PERALTA: It's hard to verify the authenticity of all these videos. However, Western governments and rights groups have all raised alarm at the shocking violence that's unfolded since the Ethiopian government and the rebel TPLF group began fighting in November. There's no reliable death toll, but thousands have been killed in a conflict that has pulled in neighboring Eritrea and Sudan and revived old animosities within Ethiopia. Human rights groups have released reports detailing mass killings that they say likely amount to war crimes, and the U.S. government says they have seen acts of ethnic cleansing in western Tigray. Oliver Behn of Doctors Without Borders just returned from a trip to the conflict zone where he and his team visited more than 100 health facilities.

OLIVER BEHN: The looting and vandalization was really done, what I would call, with with a rage almost.

PERALTA: Behn says fighters do tend to raid health facilities during conflict, but this was different. Behn says, instead of stealing the equipment or using it to treat their fighters, most clinics in Tigray were just destroyed.

BEHN: Laboratory equipment has been just smashed on the ground. Ultrasound machines have been destroyed, furniture just being broken. That looks like somebody tried to make them unusable.

PERALTA: Behn says they also saw troops occupying clinics. They saw ambulances being used to ferry goods and soldiers. It is a clear violation, he says, of international humanitarian law.

BEHN: The misuse of those health facilities as military bases has to stop.

PERALTA: In a call with journalists, the Ethiopian ambassador to Kenya said the Doctors Without Borders version of events was, quote, "unfounded." The Tigrayan rebels and activists say the Ethiopian government's goal is to annihilate the Tigrayan people. The Ethiopian government rejects these accusations. In an earlier interview with NPR, Fitsum Arega, the Ethiopian ambassador to the United States, said his government was still investigating alleged atrocities in the country's Tigray region. He says Ethiopian troops were massacred by the rebel TPLF at the start of this conflict. And for a few weeks, the government didn't know what was going on in Tigray.

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FITSUM AREGA: So it's not about denying. I mean, our forces were killed this month, and there was nobody to witness or guard.

PERALTA: His government, he says, will investigate. But as he said that, the violence continued and activists continued to put out videos of alleged atrocities. One of them showed gunmen opening fire on a community meeting.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CINEMATIC ORCHESTRA'S "DAWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.