The United Nations human rights chief voiced alarm on Tuesday at reports of a heavy build-up of tanks and artillery around the Tigrayan regional capital of Mekelle after the Ethiopian government's ultimatum to surrender before a threatened attack.
Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called on all sides to give "clear and unambiguous orders to their forces" to spare civilians, in line with international law.
Bachelet, in a statement read out to a Geneva briefing by spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani, expressed "alarm at reports of a heavy build-up of tanks and artillery around Mekelle, the capital city of Tigray province, following the Government’s issuance of a 72-hour ultimatum."
Such rhetoric suggested possible breaches of international law during the conduct of hostilities which could also amount to a war crime in and of itself, Shamdasani added.
"We have seen an Ethiopian colonel come out and say there will be no mercy. On the other side you have had the TPLF (Tigray People's Liberation Front) leadership say they are ready to die. This is the kind of rhetoric that is extremely worrying and that may provoke or may lead to serious violations of international humanitarian law," Shamdasani said.
Tigrayan forces said on Tuesday they had destroyed an Ethiopian army division in battles to control the northern region where a three-week-old war has killed hundreds and spread global alarm.
If TPLF forces were to position themselves among civilians, this does not give the Ethiopian forces "carte blanche" to respond with the use of artillery in densely populated areas, Bachelet said.
Some 40,000 Ethiopian refugees have fled to eastern Sudan the since crisis began on Nov. 4, including more than 5,000 fleeing fighting in Tigray at the weekend, the U.N. refugee agency spokesman Babar Baloch said.
There may be 'very severe, massive' internal displacement in Tigray, amid a communications blackout, U.N. aid spokesman Jens Laerke said, adding that some 200 aid workers are "stuck" in Mekelle.