Rights group accuses Ethiopia of attacks on medical facilities

ADDIS ABABA: Ethiopian forces have committed “widespread attacks amounting to war crimes against medical professionals, patients, and health facilities” in the conflict-torn Amhara region, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.

The northern region was under a state of emergency until last month after fighting erupted there between federal forces and the Fano “self-defense” militia in August 2023.

In a 66-page report based on interviews with 58 people, including victims and eyewitnesses, global rights watchdog HRW said it had documented attacks by federal forces and a pro-government militia against “medical workers, health care facilities, and transports in at least 13 towns.”

“Soldiers beat, arbitrarily arrested, and intimidated medical professionals for providing care to the injured and sick, including alleged Fano fighters,” HRW said, adding that troops also “unlawfully attacked ambulances” and prevented hospitals from functioning.

“Federal forces have obstructed access to medical facilities, including by wrongfully arresting patients on mere suspicion of a Fano affiliation, causing widespread fear for those that may seek or need treatment,” it added.

The rights group said that international humanitarian law offered “special protections to health facilities, medical professionals, patients, and ambulances.”

But HRW deputy Africa director Laetitia Bader said Ethiopia’s federal forces “operating with near impunity are unsurprisingly disregarding civilian lives by attacking medical facilities.”

HRW noted that humanitarian agencies have struggled to operate in the region of 23 million people, with nine aid workers killed since fighting erupted, including four fatalities this year.

Media access to Amhara has also been heavily restricted, while the mandate of a UN commission of experts investigating atrocities in Ethiopia expired in October, leading to limited subsequent monitoring of rights abuses in the country, HRW said.

A report released last month by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said that “Ethiopian federal forces and the Fano militia had been involved in numerous violations of international humanitarian law, resulting in over 2,000 civilian casualties in the Amhara region,” HRW said.

Bader called for “much greater international scrutiny” of the rights situation in Ethiopia.

“So long as the government feels no pressure to hold abusive forces to account, such atrocities are likely to continue,” she warned.

The violence in Amhara reignited concerns about Ethiopia’s stability, months after a peace agreement was signed in November 2022 to end a two-year conflict in the neighboring region of Tigray.

Amhara forces and the Fano supported Ethiopian troops during that war but fell out after Addis Ababa signed the 2022 peace deal, fueling a sense of betrayal among the Amhara, who have a history of land disputes with the Tigray region.

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