Ethiopia said Monday the "great majority" of those killed in a massacre in the war-hit Tigray region were fighters and not civilians, contradicting multiple independent accounts.
Findings presented by law enforcement officials provided the most detailed official version so far of a mass killing in late November that both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said left hundreds dead -- making it one of the deadliest known incidents of the six-month-old war in Tigray.
In their reports on what happened in the historic city of Axum, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty blamed Eritrean troops fighting in Tigray and said the dead were mostly civilians.
Amnesty said the Eritreans "went on a rampage and systematically killed hundreds of civilians in cold blood."
But at a press conference Monday, deputy attorney general Fikadu Tsega said the Eritreans killed 93 people during "heavy fighting" against forces loyal to the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the once dominant ruling party that Ethiopia recently designated a terrorist organisation.
"It is established that the great majority of those killed in the said incident, though they were not in uniform, they were members of the fighting force of TPLF who engaged the Eritrean forces" and Ethiopia's military, Fikadu said.
Some 1,500 young residents of Axum, a UNESCO World Heritage site, received firearms training in the days leading up to the incident, Fikadu said.
The fighting began after TPLF forces "opened attack on the Eritrean soldiers who were settled on the mountainous area of the city," he said.
Fikadu's claim that most of the dead were combatants also appears to contradict a March report from Ethiopia's national human rights body, which said Eritreans killed more than 100 Axum residents and cited witness testimony that Eritrean troops executed unarmed civilians, often in front of their families.
- Rapes investigated -
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, sent troops into Tigray in early November to topple the TPLF after blaming the party for attacks on army camps.
He promised the war would end quickly, but more than six months later fighting continues in much of the region and world leaders are warning of a pending humanitarian catastrophe.
Eritrean troops, who teamed up with the Ethiopian military, have been implicated in multiple massacres and other atrocities, allegations Asmara denies.
Fikadu said his office was also investigating reports of widespread rape in Tigray.
He said officials had taken 116 testimonies from victims and had "managed to identify" both police officers and Ethiopian soldiers "involved in the crime."
However he also said that "tens of thousands of notorious criminals" were released at the start of the conflict, some of whom were now donning Ethiopian and Eritrean military uniforms.
This has made it "extremely difficult to identify the culprits" of rape, he said.
Investigations into a range of crimes in Tigray are "still under way," he said.
Fikadu also said Ethiopia would have the authority to investigate and prosecute any crimes committed by Eritreans on Ethiopian soil.