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Attack on Ethiopia refugee camp: five dead and thousands displaced

Clashes in the Afar region of northern Ethiopia have left a camp “overrun” with refugees from neighboring Eritrea, the UN said Friday, killing five and fleeing thousands.

The attack earlier this month is the latest blow to the more than 100,000 Eritrean refugees living in Ethiopia, whose camps have repeatedly become entangled in a protracted 15-month war.

It also underscores the mounting toll of the fighting in Afar, which in recent weeks has emerged as the most active front in the conflict between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and the rebel group Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Survivors of the attack on the Bahrale camp in Afar reported that “at least five refugees were killed and several women were kidnapped” after gunmen entered on Feb. 3, the UN refugee agency said in a statement.

“Family members have lost each other in the chaos of fleeing the camp,” the statement said.

The Barahle camp is located near the border between Afar and Tigray.

Controlling most of Tigray, the TPLF announced in January that it had expanded operations to Afar, claiming it had been provoked by attacks on its positions by pro-government forces.

Friday’s UN statement did not specify which troops of survivors are accused of targeting the camp.

‘heavy weapons’

However, AFP this week interviewed several survivors in the Afar capital, Semera, who said they believed the TPLF was responsible.

“I’d never seen anything like it,” refugee Mahamooda Ahmed said, recalling what he described as an attack on civilians, with no pro-government fighters in the area.

“I had never seen soldiers open fire on civilians. There were no soldiers to fight against. They were civilians, including women and children. And they used very heavy weapons.”

He said two of his seven children – a six-year-old boy and a four-year-old girl – are missing, along with one of his two wives.

Distant regional government officials and the National Service for Refugees and Returnees also said the TPLF was to blame.

The camp remains inaccessible and these claims could not be independently verified.

TPLF leaders were not immediately available for comment Friday.

Refugees under siege

The war in Ethiopia broke out in November 2020 when Abiy sent troops to Tigray to overthrow the TPLF, a move he says came in response to the TPLF attacks on army camps.

From the start, Eritrean refugees were caught in the crossfire: two camps in northern Tigray, Hitsats and Shimelba, were looted and then completely destroyed in what one aid organization called a “rampage”.

Eritrean troops, who supported Abiy in the war, as well as Tigrayan militias have been accused of killing and raping refugees there, and thousands of the camp inmates remain missing.

Last July, two other camps in Tigray – Mai-Aini and Adi Harush – were engaged in fighting.

The attack on Bahrale marks the first time a camp outside Tigray has been hit.

The camp, which was established in 2009, was home to nearly 21,000 refugees by December 2021, according to the UN, with more than 13,000 additional refugees living in surrounding districts.

More than 4,000 refugees from Bahrale have reached Semera, the UN said Friday.

AFP this week saw hundreds gathered in the grounds of a closed luxury hotel, some using cardboard boxes to protect themselves from the hot sun.

Some 10,000 refugees are said to remain in the town of Afdera, about 225 kilometers from Semera, the UN said, while others are scattered elsewhere.

“We condemn the attack on the refugee camp and reiterate the call for an end to hostilities to prevent further destruction and possible loss of life to both refugees and Ethiopians so that much-needed humanitarian aid can reach them,” the statement said.

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