Possible Eritrea Troop Sightings Signal Wider Ethiopia Fight
Bloomberg News8 December 2020, 13:05 GMTUpdated on 8 December 2020, 13:30 GMT
- UN teams saw soldiers dressed in Eritrean uniforms in Tigray
- Eastern neighbor at odds with Tigrayans since 1998 border war
United Nations security teams evaluating the situation in Ethiopia’s Tigray region have observed troops wearing Eritrean uniforms moving in the area, according to people familiar with the matter.
The observations follow claims by Tigrayan leaders that they’ve been battling Eritrean soldiers inside their territory since clashes between Ethiopian government forces and Tigrayan fighters erupted last month. The presence of Eritrean troops would suggest the conflict, which the Ethiopian government has characterized a domestic issue, has gone regional.
UN teams saw troops dressed in Eritrean military outfits last week in western Tigray, en route to the town of Shire, one of the people said, asking not to be identified because they’re not authorized to speak to the media. A second person said soldiers wearing Eritrean uniforms were seen in the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle, and west of the city, though the observers couldn’t fully verify their findings.
A third person said regional security sources had also reported Eritrean troops on the roads that lead from Eritrea’s border to the northern Tigray towns of Adwa and Adrigat.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, didn’t respond to a request for comment sent by email. At the onset of the conflict, Abiy accused the Tigray People’s Liberation Front of manufacturing uniforms resembling those of Eritrea’s army to “implicate the Eritrean government in false claims of aggression against the people of Tigray.”
Eritrea’s government hasn’t commented on whether its forces are involved in the conflict and Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel didn’t respond to emailed questions. Catherine Sozi, the UN resident coordinator in Ethiopia, said she couldn’t immediately comment as she was unaware of the security-team reports.
A foreign diplomat and a humanitarian-aid official said Eritrean troops are suspected to have entered Ethiopia to abduct refugees at four camps in Tigray that house Eritreans suspected of being anti-government activists. Last month, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi told reporters in Sudan that such treatment of refugees would constitute “major violations of international norms.”
Meron Estefanos, director of the Eritrean Initiative on Refugee Rights, said by phone she had spoken to at least one refugee who said they had been taken by Eritrean forces across the border to a hospital in Eritrea and were not allowed to return to Tigray.
Abiy has stressed that the conflict in Tigray is an “internal affair,” and described the incursion into Tigray as a “law-enforcement operation.”
Any Eritrean involvement would run “counter to the entire narrative that the Abiy government has sought to create around this conflict: that it is limited in scope, that it is law-enforcement only and that it is entirely domestic,” said Cameron Hudson, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.
The TPLF, the ruling party in Tigray until last month’s incursion, has repeatedly accused Eritrean forces of crossing the border and aiding the Ethiopian federal army. Tigrayan forces fired ballistic missiles at Eritrea in retaliation on at least two occasions since the conflict began.
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki has been at odds with the TPLF since 1998, when a dispute over territory sparked a two-year war with Ethiopia. The fighting left tens of thousands of people dead and didn’t officially end until two years ago, when Abiy signed a peace accord with Isaias — an action for which Abiy received the Nobel Peace Prize.
Prior to that conflict, Eritrean and Tigrayan forces fought together to overthrow the Marxist Derg regime that ruled Ethiopia from 1974 until 1987.
In addition to sharing a border, Tigray and Eritrea have a similar language and culture. While there have been calls for a greater Tigrinya-speaking nation by Tigrayans in the past, Eritrea’s government is opposed to the idea.
— With assistance by Paul Richardson