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Ethiopia's Amhara region denied Thursday that its forces were engaged in "ethnic cleansing" in conflict-hit Tigray, one day after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken used the phrase in public testimony.
Earlier this week, Tigrayan officials accused forces from neighbouring Amhara of kicking thousands of people off land in western Tigray -- a part of the region that ethnic Amharas claim rightfully belongs to them.
Appearing before Congress Wednesday, Blinken said "acts of ethnic cleansing" had been committed in western Tigray, calling for them to "stop" and for "full accountability".
In an interview with AFP Thursday, Amhara spokesman Gizachew Muluneh dismissed reports of ethnic cleansing and large-scale displacement as "propaganda".
"A few Tigrayans may be displaced, a few in number," he said.
Gizachew also said Blinken's call for Amhara forces to leave Tigray was misguided, claiming the territory where these forces were present would actually be considered part of Amhara from now on.
"There are not any Amhara forces in Tigray region. These areas are not Tigrayan areas, in history," Gizachew said.
"If the Secretary [Blinken] is talking about these areas, these areas are not Tigrayan. Our forces are not in the Tigrayan areas, rather our forces are in Amhara region. That is our response."
Ethiopia is made up of 10 semi-autonomous federal states organised along ethnic lines, and ethnic violence has soared in recent years.
- Disputed land -
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military campaign in Tigray in November after blaming the region's ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), for attacks on army camps.
Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, leaned on forces from Amhara to secure western and southern Tigray once the TPLF retreated from those areas, and Amhara officials set up transitional administrations in multiple cities and towns.
It was a sensitive move, given that many ethnic Amharas believe the once-dominant TPLF illegally incorporated the fertile territories after it came to power in the early 1990s -- and that they should fall under Amhara administration.
Blinken's remarks Wednesday confirmed the substance of a New York Times report last month that said that an internal US government report determined there was "ethnic cleansing" in western Tigray.
The report, according to the newspaper, said entire villages had disappeared in an effort to make western Tigray "ethnically homogeneous through the organized use of force and intimidation."
Abiy's government has not announced any formal decision on whether western and southern Tigray would be annexed by Amhara.
His office on Thursday referred questions to the foreign ministry, which did not respond to a request for comment.
- Fighting continues -
Abiy declared victory in Tigray in late November after federal forces entered the regional capital Mekele, but TPLF leaders remain on the run and fighting has continued.
While Abiy's government says life is returning to normal in much of the region, UN officials fear for a humanitarian catastrophe and estimate that 4.5 million people need assistance.
Blinken on Wednesday reiterated Washington's call for the withdrawal of troops from neighbouring Eritrea from Tigray.
The Eritreans stand accused of multiple massacres and widespread acts of sexual violence, though Addis Ababa and Asmara officially deny they are present in Tigray at all.
A statement from the ousted Tigray government, posted Thursday on Twitter by TPLF senior official Getachew Reda, praised the administration of US President Joe Biden "for their principled position against war crimes and all forms of impunity".
It also said pro-TPLF forces would keep up their fight "until such time that our people are fully liberated from occupation."