NEW YORK (REUTERS) - More than 500 rape cases have been reported to five clinics in Ethiopia's Tigray region, the United Nations said on Thursday (March 25), warning that the actual numbers were likely to be much higher due to stigma and a lack of health services.
"Women say they have been raped by armed actors, they also told stories of gang rape, rape in front of family members and men being forced to rape their own family members under the threat of violence," Ms Wafaa Said, deputy UN aid coordinator in Ethiopia, said in a briefing to UN member states in New York.
She said at least 516 rape cases had been reported by five medical facilities in Mekelle, Adigrat, Wukro, Shire and Axum.
"Given the fact that most health facilities are not functioning and also the stigma associated with rape, it is projected that actual numbers are much higher," she added.
A dozen top UN officials called on Monday for a stop to indiscriminate and targeted attacks against civilians in Tigray, particularly calling out reports of rape and "other horrific forms of sexual violence".
Fighting in Tigray broke out last November between government troops and the region's former ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has also said troops from neighbouring Eritrea were in the region.
The Ethiopian government takes the allegations of sexual violence "very seriously" and has deployed a fact-finding mission, Ethiopia's UN ambassador, Mr Taye Atskeselassie Amde, told Reuters.
"Ethiopia has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual crimes and anyone found responsible for the despicable acts will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law," he said.
Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed and Eritrea's Information Minister, Mr Yemane Gebremeskel, did not respond to calls and messages requesting comment on the UN remarks on Thursday.
The violence in Tigray has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes in the mountainous region of about five million.
"Most of the internally displaced people left with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing. They are generally traumatised and tell stories of the difficult journey they took in search of safety. Some reported walking for two weeks and some as far as 500km," Ms Said said on Thursday.
"Of the people who travelled with them, some were reportedly killed, particularly youngsters, people were reportedly beaten, women were subject to rape, some were pregnant and delivered on the way, losing their babies," she said.
The UN has raised concerns about atrocities, while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has described acts carried out as ethnic cleansing. Ethiopia rejected Mr Blinken's allegation.
This week, Mr Abiy acknowledged for the first time that atrocities such as rape had been committed and said any soldiers committing crimes would be punished.
Dozens of witnesses in Tigray have told Reuters that Eritrean soldiers routinely killed civilians, gang-raped and tortured women and looted households and crops.
Eritrea has not responded to queries on reports of atrocities.