KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) -- The Ethiopian government is disputing charges of ethnic cleansing in the Tigray conflict, calling allegations by the United States "unfounded."
"Nothing during or after the end of the main law enforcement operation in Tigray can be identified or defined by any standards as a targeted, intentional ethnic cleansing against anyone in the region," the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement Saturday.
"That is why the Ethiopian government vehemently opposes such accusations."
Allegations of ethnic cleansing amount to "a completely unfounded and spurious verdict against the Ethiopian government," it said, accusing Washington of "overblowing things out of proportion."
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken asserted Wednesday that ethnic cleansing has happened in western Tigray, the first time a top official in the international community has openly described Tigray's alleged atrocities as such.
Blinken told the foreign affairs committee of the U.S. House of Representatives that the U.S. is "seeing very credible reports of human rights abuses and atrocities that are ongoing" in Tigray, a region in the north of Ethiopia that is the base of a party that dominated Ethiopian politics for decades before the rise of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
The leaders of that party, known by its initials TPLF, are in hiding as federal forces and their allies — including fighters from Eritrea — hunt down fighters loyal to the local administration in Tigray.
The conflict began in November, when Abiy sent government troops into Tigray after an attack there on federal military facilities.
No one knows how many thousands of civilians have been killed in the conflict.
While Ethiopia's government says a federal investigation of the alleged crimes is underway, critics say the government cannot effectively investigate itself. They want an international probe, ideally led by the United Nations. The latest government statement suggested an openness to a probe featuring outside groups.
If necessary, the statement said, the government will "conduct joint investigations with the relevant bodies" from the international community, including the African Union.
Blinken has urged Abiy, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his efforts to make peace with neighboring Eritrea, to end hostilities in Tigray. Eritrean troops as well as fighters from Amhara, an Ethiopian region bordering Tigray, "need to come out," Blinken said in his testimony Wednesday, adding that the region needs "a force that will not abuse the human rights of the people of Tigray or commit acts of ethnic cleansing, which we've seen in western Tigray. That has to stop."
Accounts of atrocities by Ethiopian and allied forces against residents of Tigray have been detailed in reports by The Associated Press and by Amnesty International. Ethiopia's federal government and regional officials in Tigray both maintain that each other's governments are illegitimate after the pandemic disrupted elections.
Humanitarian officials have warned that a growing number of people might be starving to death in Tigray. The fighting erupted on the brink of harvest in the largely agricultural region and sent an untold number of people fleeing their homes. Witnesses have described widespread looting by Eritrean soldiers as well as the burning of crops.
The humanitarian situation in Tigray "remains extremely concerning, with conflict continuing to drive population displacement and reports of some villages being completely emptied," the U.N. humanitarian office said in its latest assessment. "Disruptions in basic services, such as communications, banking services and electricity, continue to pose serious challenges to humanitarian efforts, while putting people further at risk."