The fate of civilians hangs in the balance as Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed prepares to launch an attack on Mekele, the capital of the Tigray region. A 72-hour ultimatum for TPLF fighters expires this Wednesday.
Refugees are pouring into neighboring Sudan, where the old camp of Um Raquba near the border with Ethiopia, closed 20 years ago, was hastily reopened by the United Nations. ''We have over 9,000 people in this settlement,'' Mohammed Rafiq Nasry, head of office of the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR in Um Raquba, told DW.
Alem is a refugee from Humera. He was wounded in the leg during an attack. He arrived in al Raquba a couple of days ago. ''I'm alone, my mom and my dad died in the bombing. I have no clothes, only what I am wearing. Nobody helps me. I don't have enough water or food here. Nobody takes care of me," he told DW.
28-year-old Melas Gemay, a former soldier in the Tigrayian army, arrived at the camp a fortnight ago. ''The Amharic soldiers came and asked if we spoke Tigrinya. Those who said yes and were older than 18 were shot. I saw them do this to my friend. I managed to escape," he said.
UNHCR's Nasry said that expectations were that more than a thousand people would be arriving daily at the camp. ''People here need everything. We now cater one hot meal a day for 9,000 people, that's not enough. Shelter is much needed. We have a new shelter project at the moment. We are preparing the land for tents," he said, calling on the international community to help.
According to the United Nations' humanitarian spokesman Saviano Abreu, there are no humanitarian corridors in place in the Tigrayan capital of Mekele, which is surrounded by government troops. "We haven't been able to send any supplies since the beginning of the conflict, which is due to blockage from all parties," Abreu told journalists.
Food and fuel are getting scarce. One week of food is left for almost 100,000 Eritrean refugees inside Tigray, he said, adding that "people in Tigray are terrified."
A 72-hour government deadline for Tigray forces to surrender is due to expire on Wednesday evening. The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), a political party spearheading the fighting, has rejected the ultimatum. Hundreds of people have been killed since fighting began on November 4. More than 41,000 refugees have fled to Sudan.
Fisseha Tekle, a researcher based in Nairobi for the Ethiopian chapter of the human rights organization Amnesty International, stressed that half a million people live in Tigray's regional capital, Mekele. ''We are really worried if artillery is deployed, there will be an increase in casualties,'' Tekle told DW. He called on both sides to abide by international treaties protecting civilians in conflict areas.
Colonel Shuma Obsa, head of the Joint Logistics Main department of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, told DW that due diligence would be enforced to protect civilians in case of an offensive against Mekele. "We have much experience in fighting a war. We never attack civilians, let alone here [inside Ethiopia]. We know exactly how to tell civilians from militants and nothing will happen to civilians," he promised.
But worries over civilians' fate may not be assuaged as details emerge of a massacre of at least 600 people on November 9 in Mai-Kadra in the northern Tigray region. A local youth group aided by soldiers and militias has been accused of carrying out the killings.
The number was confirmed by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission spokesperson, Aaron Masho, as he revealed in an interview with DW preliminary conclusions of an on-site investigation carried out between November 14 and 19. ''The evidence we gathered indicates that ethnic Amharas were profiled, identified, and targeted in premeditated attacks.'' This, the commission believes, could amount to ''war crimes and crimes against humanity,'' Masho said.
While Amnesty International has confirmed the occurrence of a massacre, an independent verification of the Addis Ababa human rights commission's claims is made difficult by the suspension of phone and internet connections and tightly controlled access to the region by the military.
The international community is worried about the conflict in the Tigray region. The European Union's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that the fighting is seriously destabilizing the East and Horn of Africa region on Tuesday evening. "I expressed my great concern regarding increasing ethnic-targeted violence, numerous casualties, and violations of human rights and international humanitarian law," Borrell said after speaking to Ethiopia's Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen.
Ethiopia's government maintains that the fighting is an internal law enforcement matter. In several statements, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed rejected what he called "any interference in our internal affairs."
Nevertheless, the conflict is bound to impact the whole region. Tigrayan forces have fired rockets at the neighboring country of Eritrea.
Ethiopia disarmed several hundred Tigrayan soldiers in an African Union (AU) peacekeeping force fighting al Qaida-linked militants in Somalia. It also pulled three soldiers of Tigrayan ethnicity from the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan UNMISS. UN officials said that the discrimination of Tigrayan soldiers was a potential violation of human rights.
European Union countries addressed the conflict at a closed-door meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday, hoping for concrete steps by the international community to prevent more loss of life. But South Africa, Niger, and Tunisia urged more time for regional mediation efforts before the council considers action.
The UN and the European Union voiced support for the AU's decision to send three envoys — former presidents Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, and Kgalema Motlanthe of South Africa — to Addis Ababa on Wednesday to mediate in the conflict.
Hopes of succeeding in this endeavor were dampened by Ethiopia's assertion that while the government would meet with the envoys, they would not be allowed to talk to Tigray leaders.
Mariel Müller, Seyoum Hailu, and Yohannes Gebreegziabher in Addis Ababa contributed to this article