Countries urged the top UN rights body Friday to send international investigators to conflict-hit Ethiopia amid warnings of looming generalised violence, as Addis Ababa accused them of hijacking the process to exert "political pressure".

Addressing an emergency meeting of the UN Human Rights Council, deputy rights chief Nada al-Nashif cautioned that Ethiopia's brutal 13-month conflict in the northern Tigray region could "escalate into generalised violence."

This, she said, would have "major implications, not only for millions of people in Ethiopia, but also across the region".

The meeting was called to consider launching an international investigation into allegations of horrifying abuses in the country, including mass killings and sexual violence.

The session, which was requested by the European Union with support of more than 50 countries, was slammed by Ethiopia as "an instrument of political pressure".

Many diplomats voiced alarm at reports of atrocities in the conflict, which the UN says has left thousands dead, displaced more than two million people and pushed hundreds of thousands to the brink of famine.

"The gravity and scale of violations and atrocities committed against civilians by all sides, including sexual and gender-based violence and ethnic violence, is unacceptable," Slovenia's ambassador Anita Pipan said on behalf of the EU.

The bloc is pushing for an international investigation into abuses committed since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray in 2020 after accusing the region's ruling party of attacking federal army camps.

The UN says thousands have died in the 13-month conflict
The UN says thousands have died in the 13-month conflict AFP / Amanuel Sileshi

A joint investigation by the UN rights office warned last month that possible war crimes and crimes against humanity had been committed by all sides during the conflict.

Al-Nashif said Friday the rights office had since continued "to receive credible reports of severe human rights violations and abuses by all parties".

She voiced particular concern about surging rights abuses after a nationwide state of emergency was declared on November 2, with mass arrests mainly of ethnic Tigrayans.

"While some of those arrested over the past six weeks have been released, we estimate that between 5,000 and 7,000 remain detained, including nine UN staff members," she said.

Friday's draft resolution is calling on the council to create "an international commission of human rights experts on Ethiopia" to probe a wide range of alleged violations and abuses by all sides.

Ethiopia slammed the idea, pointing out that it had cooperated with the joint investigation and had launched its own probe.

Ambassador Zenebe Kebede charged that the council was "being used as an instrument of political pressure", and targeting a democratically-elected government.

Multilateralism had been "hijacked by a neo-colonialist mentality", he added.

Several nations came to Ethiopia's defence, with Cameroon's ambassador Salomon Eheth insisting on behalf of African countries that the requested investigation would be "counterproductive and susceptible to exacerbating tensions".

Al-Nashif meanwhile stressed that "the onus is on the state to discharge its primary responsibility to deliver fair and independent proceedings that address the full range of violations identified".

"In the absence of significant accountability efforts, an international mechanism would be an important complement," she added.