Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers rounded up around 200 displaced civilians during a violent nighttime raid on camps in Ethiopia's war-hit Tigray region, Amnesty International and witnesses told AFP Tuesday.
It is the largest known operation targeting sprawling displacement camps in the Tigray town of Shire, and comes nearly two months since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed vowed Eritrean troops would leave Tigray.
The soldiers worked together Monday night to detain more than 100 civilians at the Tsehaye camp and at least 76 at a second camp known as Adiwonfito, beating them and snatching their phones before forcing them onto trucks, Amnesty researcher Fisseha Tekle said.
The victims were mostly men -- some of them teenagers and at least one in his 70s -- and they have been taken to an area known as Guna on the outskirts of Shire, he said.
The displaced population in Shire mostly comes from farming families forced out of western Tigray, where US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said "ethnic cleansing" is unfolding.
"From the sources I spoke to, they were farmers in the west before they were displaced. There is no way they were special forces, special police or Tigray militias. It's a kind of mass arrest without any grounds," Fisseha said.
A witness at Adiwonfito who escaped the roundup told AFP that while individual detentions have occurred in the past, this is the first time soldiers have carried out mass arrests.
Those left behind "are crying and scared so they have fled the camps," said the witness, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Tewodros Aregai, interim head of Tigray's Northwestern Zone, told AFP the arrests were spurred by reports that anti-government forces had infiltrated the camps.
"There was a rumour that some forces joined the [displaced] from outside and they have a plan to do something within three days. The security officials from the Ethiopian defence forces have got this information," he said.
Screening operations are underway and nine civilians had been released as of Tuesday night, he said.
"We are trying to solve the problem... I hope it will be resolved in a short period of time," he said.
- Visa restrictions -
Abiy sent troops into Tigray last November to detain and disarm leaders of the region's ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).
He said the move came in response to attacks on federal army camps.
Though he vowed the war would be brief, more than six months later fighting continues, reports of atrocities are proliferating and world leaders are warning of a potential humanitarian catastrophe.
On Sunday Blinken announced visa and aid restrictions targeting Ethiopian and Eritrean officials.
Ethiopia denounced the move as "unfortunate" and "misguided" on Monday, and Eritrea followed suit Tuesday, saying it was "dismayed".
Fisseha told AFP Tuesday he had spoken to multiple witnesses in Shire who said soldiers cried out "Let's see if the US will save you" as they beat displaced civilians and took them into custody Monday night.
*This story was edited by Ahram Online.