ADDIS ABABA/GENEVA (Reuters) - Ethiopia's government said on Friday it was returning Eritrean refugees to camps they had fled in the northern region of Tigray, a move that alarmed the United Nations refugee agency after a month-long conflict that is believed to have killed thousands of people.
The United Nations and other aid agencies say they have been denied access to some 96,000 refugees in Tigray since fighting erupted on Nov. 4 between the government and a rebellious regional force. They are concerned about food and security in the camps, which they have not been permitted to visit since the conflict broke out.
The government says it has now defeated forces loyal to the region's former ruling Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), and it is safe for refugees who fled to the capital Addis Ababa to return to Tigray.
"A large number of misinformed refugees are moving out in an irregular manner," the government said in a statement on Friday.
"The government is safely returning those refugees to their respective camps," the statement said, adding that food was being transported to the camps.
TPLF leaders say they are fighting back on various fronts. Claims by all sides in the conflict are near-impossible to verify because most communications to Tigray are down and the government tightly controls access.
Reuters received frantic calls from refugees in the capital who had been told they would be bussed back to Tigray but feared they were being taken back to Eritrea - the neighbouring country they originally fled.
"Please come, please come, the buses are here!" one woman yelled as children wept in the background.
Another woman said Eritreans faced mounting hostility from Tigrayans who accuse Eritrea of sending troops into Ethiopia to help Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government battle the TPLF.
Both countries deny this, although the U.S. State Department said on Thursday it believes reports of Eritrean military involvement in the conflict in Ethiopia are "credible".
"Some Tigrayan people beat up my husband," the refugee said. "People there were saying – 'your country is coming here and attacking us. So you - we will kill you too.' We were getting so scared."
Refugees may be facing additional dangers.
TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael said in text messages to Reuters this month that Eritrean soldiers had raided two camps in Tigray and abducted some residents, but provided no evidence. Eritrea denies this.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said on Friday the agency had received similar reports.
"Over the last month we have received an overwhelming number of disturbing reports of Eritrean refugees in Tigray being killed, abducted and forcibly returned to Eritrea. If confirmed, these actions would constitute a major violation of international law," he said in a statement.
The presence of Eritrean troops on Ethiopian soil would alarm Western allies and risk further inflaming the conflict.
Eritrea has long faced accusations of large scale rights abuses. It accuses Western powers of smear campaigns and luring Eritreans abroad, which they deny.
France, Britain, Germany, the United States, Estonia and Belgium plan to raise the humanitarian situation in Tigray during a closed-door U.N. Security Council meeting Monday and have asked for a U.N. aid official to brief, diplomats said.
FOOD FOR REFUGEES
There are four main camps for Eritrean refugees in Tigray - Shimelba, Hitsats, Mai-Ayni and Adi Harush.
The UNHCR was not informed of any planned relocation of refugees in Ethiopia, Babar Baloch, a UNHCR spokesman, told reporters in Geneva. He called the reports "alarming."
He added, "While we cannot speculate at this time, any refoulement would be absolutely unacceptable.” Refoulement means forcing refugees to return to the country they fled from.
Ato Addisu, deputy head of Ethiopia's state-run Agency for Refugee and Returnee Affairs, said, "A return to Eritrea would never happen unless they request by themselves – this is against international law".
Around 580 refugees were on the buses to Tigray, he told Reuters.
The prime minister's office dismissed concerns that the war was preventing aid reaching civilians.
"Suggestions that humanitarian assistance is impeded due to active military combat ... within the Tigray region is untrue and undermines ... work to stabilise the region," it said in a statement on Friday.
(Reporting by Addis Ababa newsroom and Emma Farge in Geneva; Additional reporting by Nairobi newsroom and Michelle Nichols in New York; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Alexandra Zavis, William Maclean and Frances Kerry)