By Ayenat Mersie
NAIROBI, May 21 (Reuters) - Three Ethiopian soldiers have been convicted of rape and one of killing a civilian in Ethiopia's Tigray region, the government said on Friday, the first public statement that soldiers had been found guilty of crimes against civilians in the conflict.
Twenty-eight more soldiers are on trial for killing civilians and 25 for acts of sexual violence and rape, the statement from the attorney general's office said.
Awol Sultan, the spokesman for the attorney general's office, could not immediately be reached for comment for further details or whether the records would be made public. Neither could military spokesman General Mohammed Tessema.
Ethiopia's government has come under increasing pressure to demonstrate accountability as reports of atrocities in Tigray mount. The European Union has suspended budget support payments amid reports of brutal gang rapes, mass killings of civilians and widespread looting in the northern region.
Conflict erupted more than six months ago between the federal government and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the political party that previously ruled Tigray. Days after fighting began, forces from the neighbouring Amhara region to the south and Eritrea to the north sent in troops to support Ethiopian soldiers.
The U.N. has said that war crimes may have been committed by all parties to the conflict.
Ethiopia's military and federal prosecutors are also investigating other instances of alleged crimes, including in the city of Axum, the statement said. In February, Amnesty International said Eritrean troops killed hundreds of Tigrayan civilians there from Nov. 28-29 and described the incident as a potential crime against humanity.
"The investigation indicates that a total of 110 civilians have been killed on these dates by Eritrean troops" in Axum, the government statement said, including 40 who were killed in home raids.
The statement differed sharply from a statement earlier this month on the Axum killings. On May 10, the attorney general's office said preliminary evidence indicated 93 people were killed and that the "great majority" were TPLF combatants out of uniform.
Friday's statement, however, noted only that "some of these individuals might have been irregular combatants."
Suspects in the ongoing Axum investigation will soon be identified, the statement said, without providing detail on the level of cooperation from the Eritrean military, whose troops stand accused of the killings.
Both Ethiopia and Eritrea denied Eritrea's presence in Tigray for months despite dozens of eyewitness accounts.
Eritrea's Foreign Minister Osman Saleh declined to comment on the report's findings or on whether Eritrea had plans to start its own investigation into possible wrongdoing by its soldiers.
Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Eritrean troops were committing human rights abuses in Tigray and urged Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to push for their withdrawal. (Reporting by Ayenat Mersie; Editing by Katharine Houreld, William Maclean)
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