These are several sources which point to the role of Eritrean troops in the Tigray war – something the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government denied emphatically.
Source: Addis Standard
NEWS: MEKELLE CITY INTERIM MAYOR ADMITS PRESENCE AND PARTICIPATION OF ERITREAN FORCES IN TIGRAY CONFLICT
A screenshot of Ataklti Haileselassie, Interim Mayor of Mekelle city, as he spoke about the presence and participation of Eritrean forces in Tigray conflict
BY MEDIHANE EKUBAMICHAEL @MEDIHANE
Addis Abeba, January 04/2021 – Ataklti Haileselassie, Interim Mayor of Mekelle city who was appointed by the Tigray regional state interim administration, admitted the presence and participation Eritrean forces in the armed conflict in Tigray.
In a video televised by Tigray TV, which is currently under the control of the federal government appointed interim administration in Tigray, Ataklit responds to questions from community members participating in a meeting. According to Ataklit, the question of the presence of Eritrean forces in Tigray was “a daily question of the interim administration,” and that “relevant military leaders have been asked to give explanations.”
“Why did they come in?” Ataklti asks and goes on to explain “the country’s largest command [the Northern Command], which was supposed to protect the country, was stabbed on its back and they [Eritrean forces] entered because there was no other defense. But it was also announced that they were being withdrawn from the country in a short time. It is a mistake to associate this with the interim administration,” he said.
The people of Tigray should not be harmed three or four times in “such unplanned and meaningless war,” the interim mayor laments “we have had a lot of embarrassment. When will it be enough for Tigraway from entering an endless war and death? It is a shame that every ten years Tigraway dies due to war. We don’t have a problem right now, so we don’t have to ask why they came in now, but how to get them out. We are here to discuss what we can do to stabilize the situation outside our city.”
Atakliti became the first senior government official to admit the presence and participation of Eritrean forces in the armed conflict in Tigray, which is categorically denied by officials both in Addis Abeba and Asmara despite growing evidences.
In a press briefing he held on December 09, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that he “confronted PM Abiy with that question, and he guaranteed to me that they have not entered Tigrayan territory. The only area where they are is corresponded to the disputed territory between the two countries that was decided to give back to Eritrea.”
However, citing U.S. government sources, humanitarian agencies and satellite images, several leading international media including the New York Times, Reuters, and Bloomberg, have reported about the presence and involvement of Eritrean forces in the armed conflict in Tigray, which began exactly two months ago on Nov. 04/2020.
The Ethiopian government, continued referring to the conflict as “law enforcement operation in Tigray,” and said it was completed on November 28 after its forces “captured” the city of Mekelle, the capital of Tigray. However, a latest report by Famine Early Warning Systems Network revealed the “conflict has been ongoing at relatively lower levels, predominately in some central and eastern areas.”
The Network, which is a USAID founded leading provider of analysis on food insecurity, also warns “the conflict in the Tigray region resulted in a notable decline in food security among displaced, urban, and poor rural households despite the ongoing harvest.”
‘Slaughtered like chickens’: Eritrea heavily involved in Tigray conflict, say eyewitnesses
Despite denials by Ethiopia, multiple reports confirm killings, looting and forcible return of refugees by Asmara’s forces
Mon 21 Dec 2020 07.15 GMT
In early December, Ethiopian state television broadcast something unexpected: a fiery exchange between civilians in Shire, in the northern Tigray region, and Ethiopian soldiers, who had recently arrived in the area.
To the surprise of viewers used to wartime propaganda, the Tigrayan elders spoke in vivid detail of the horrors that had befallen the town since the outbreak of war between the federal government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the region’s longstanding ruling party, which was ousted from the state capital of Mekelle in late November.
Residents had been “slaughtered like chicken”, the elders said, their corpses abandoned to be “eaten by hyenas”. They also spoke of rampant looting and vandalism: “All government assets have been destroyed and looted,” said one.
Perhaps most revealing, however, was the implication that those responsible for the carnage were not Ethiopian federal troops, but outsiders. “You need to solve this problem immediately,” said an elder addressing the generals and newly appointed Tigray president, Mulu Nega. “How can institutions that should serve the government of the day be allowed to be destroyed and looted by hooligans who do not have Ethiopian values in them?”
Mulu Nega: ‘How can institutions that should serve the government of the day be allowed to be destroyed and looted by hooligans who do not have Ethiopian values in them?’ Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty
Thousands are thought to have been killed, civilians among them, and nearly 50,000 people have fled to Sudan since Ethiopia’s Tigray war began on 4 November. Pitched battles involving tanks and fighter jets – as well as militia from Amhara, which borders Tigray to the south – have flattened villages and emptied towns.
But according to eyewitnesses, aid workers and diplomats, the fighting has also involved many thousands of soldiers from neighbouring Eritrea, suggesting that what the Ethiopian government calls a “law enforcement operation” bears the hallmarks of a regional conflict.
Abiy and Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afwerki, share a common enemy in the TPLF, which dominated Ethiopia’s federal government for nearly three decades before Abiy took office in 2018. Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a bloody war between 1998 and 2000, which claimed an estimated 100,000 lives.
Earlier this month the former president of Tigray, Debretsion Gebremichael, accused Eritrean forces of mass looting. Before that he alleged Tigrayan forces were fending off Eritrean divisions on several fronts. The TPLF has claimed responsibility for one of three missile strikes on Eritrea since the war began, arguing it had acted in self-defence since the airport in Asmara, the capital, which was hit by at least two rockets in the strike, had been used to launch attacks.
Debretsion Gebremichael, Tigray’s former president, has accused Eritrean forces of mass looting. Photograph: Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty
Refugees crossing into Sudan have also made similar claims, telling reporters and aid workers that artillery shells that hit towns in western Tigray had come from Eritrea. But confirmation has been complicated by the lack of access for outsiders, including media, and the cutting off of communications to the region. Phone lines were restored in parts of Tigray this month, but there is still no internet.
Abiy has denied all allegations, and told the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, on 9 December that he could guarantee no Eritrean troops had entered Ethiopian territory.
However, his government does acknowledge that Ethiopian troops who escaped to Eritrea at the start of the war were aided by Eritreans who fed, clothed and armed them before they returned to the fight in Tigray.
“The Eritrean people are not only our brothers,” Abiy told parliament last month. “They have also shown us practically that they are friends who stood by our side on a tough day.”
But diplomatic sources have backed accusations that Eritrean soldiers have been actively involved in combat inside Tigray. Reuters, which interviewed several unidentified diplomats in the region and a US official, revealed earlier this month that the US government believed Eritrean soldiers had crossed into Ethiopian territory in mid-November via three northern border towns: Zalambessa, Rama and Badme.
A spokesperson for the US state department later confirmed the details, marking a shift among US officials, who have previously praised Eritrea for its “restraint”. “We are aware of credible reports of Eritrean military involvement in Tigray and view this as a grave development,” said the spokesperson. “We urge that any such troops be withdrawn immediately.”
“In the lingo of the state department that means they have intercepts, satellites and maybe even human intelligence as well,” a top EU diplomat in the region told the Guardian. “From everything we’ve been told it is incontrovertible they [Eritrean troops] are involved. It’s absolutely clear.”
Mesfin Hagos, a former Eritrean defence minister turned opposition figure, said in an article for online publication African Arguments, that Isaias had deployed four mechanised divisions, seven infantry divisions and a commando brigade, citing sources in the defence ministry among others.
Wallelegn, a Tigrayan working in Shire when the war began who later escaped to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, told the Guardian that the “Eritreans were really leading the Ethiopian forces in the area”.
“Their uniform is different and they are relatively old and skinny compared with the Ethiopian defence forces,” he said. “In the early days of their arrival to Shire they were looting, randomly shooting, mainly youngsters, and burning factories.”
He added: “At first the Ethiopian forces were emotional, and were not doing much to stop the attacks. But later on they started to take charge [and impose order].”
A communal grave for victims of an alleged massacre in Mai Kadra. Photograph: Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty Images
Tigray is also home to around 100,000 refugees from Eritrea, many of whom have fled indefinite national service and military conscription. When the war began they were caught in the middle and cut off from relief supplies.
A humanitarian worker in Shire told the Guardian that many refugees in Hitsats camp fled as soon as troops from Eritrea arrived in the vicinity on 19 November. According to the source, the approaching “north force” – a reference to Eritrean troops crossing the border from the north – armed refugees before looting property, slaughtering livestock and burning crops.
A senior UN official told the Guardian they had received similar allegations, including of the killing of three security guards employed by the UN at Hitsats camp who tried to prevent the abduction of refugees, and the forced conscription of refugees to fight alongside the Eritrean army.
On 11 December, the head of the UN refugee agency said it had received an “overwhelming” number of reports of Eritrean refugees in Tigray being killed, abducted or forcibly returned to Eritrea over the past month. That same day Ethiopian authorities started putting Eritrean refugees in Addis Ababa on buses and returning them to Tigray against their will. The Ethiopian government said it was “safely returning” refugees to camps where there would be access to “service delivery systems” in order to process their cases.
In recent days, according to a refugee based in Adi Harush camp, south of Hitsats, Eritrean soldiers accompanied by Ethiopian troops have patrolled the camp on the hunt for individuals. “They were searching name-by-name and home-to-home. Their main target seems to be opposition members,” said the refugee, who asked for anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Eritrean state television, the only broadcast media in the country, has made no mention of the conflict in Ethiopia since it began, Eritreans living in Asmara say. President Isaias has not uttered a word in public in response to the missiles fired at Asmara last month.
Nor has his minister of information, Yemane Gebremeskel, whose office building narrowly escaped a rocket strike on 13 November. Eritrea’s foreign minister, Osman Saleh Mohammed, acknowledged the war but denied any involvement. “We are not part of the conflict,” he told Reuters last month.
Ethiopian officials, meanwhile, have accused the TPLF of manufacturing fake Eritrean uniforms to falsely implicate their neighbours, and insist that the conflict remains an exclusively internal affair.
Meron Estefanos, director of the Eritrean Initiative on Refugee Rights, notes that not all allegations involving Eritreans are plausible. She told the Guardian that while some refugees and prominent opposition figures living in Ethiopia had certainly been forcibly returned to Eritrea, estimates of several thousand abductees are improbable.
But as for the broader claims of Eritrean involvement, she said: “People inside Eritrea know exactly what is going on.
“I am sick and tired of the fact that, no matter how many Eritreans say that Eritrean troops are in Tigray, it is not confirmed until a foreign diplomat says it is.”
Exclusive: U.S. says reports of Eritrean troops in Ethiopia’s Tigray are ‘credible’
By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States believes reports of Eritrean military involvement in the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region are “credible,” a State Department spokesperson told Reuters on Thursday, despite denials by both nations.
Residents carry jerrycans along a street in Dansha town in Tigray Region, Ethiopia November 9, 2020. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri
The spokesperson called on any Eritrean soldiers there to pull out.
“We are aware of credible reports of Eritrean military involvement in Tigray and view this as a grave development. We urge that any such troops be withdrawn immediately,” the spokesperson said.
Reuters was first to report on Tuesday that the U.S. government believed Eritrean soldiers had crossed into Ethiopian territory, effectively helping Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government battle a rebellious northern force.
Abiy won a Nobel Peace Prize last year for making peace with Eritrea, but the presence of Eritrean troops on Ethiopian soil would alarm Western allies and risk further inflaming the conflict.
Eritrea has for years faced accusations of large scale rights abuses, including jailing opponents and forcing citizens into lengthy military or government service. It accuses Western powers of smear campaigns and luring Eritreans abroad, which they deny.
Ethiopia hosts the African Union, its security services work with Western allies, and its troops serve in peacekeeping missions in South Sudan and Somalia.
The State Department spokesperson noted reports of human rights abuses in Tigray.
“We are also aware of reports of human rights violations and abuses in the region. All parties must respect human rights and international humanitarian law,” the spokesperson said.
“We and other international partners continue to urge an independent investigation of the reports and accountability for those found responsible.”
Ethiopia has denied Eritrea entered the conflict, though Abiy did say last week that some government troops retreated into Eritrea early in the conflict and were given assistance. Eritrea’s Foreign Minister Osman Saleh has called claims it entered the conflict “propaganda.”
Claims by all sides are near-impossible to verify because most communications to Tigray are down, and the government tightly controls access.
Abiy and Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki signed a peace pact ending two decades of hostilities in 2018 and now regard the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) as a mutual foe.
The TPLF claims to have killed and captured large numbers of Eritrean troops in the last month, but has provided no evidence. It has fired rockets into Eritrea at least four times, the U.S. State Department says.
Reuters, citing diplomatic sources, reported on Tuesday that Eritrean troops were believed to have entered Ethiopia in mid-November through three northern border towns: Zalambessa, Rama and Badme.
Mesfin Hagos, a former Eritrean defence minister who broke with Isaias, said in an article for online publication African Arguments that the Eritreans sent in four mechanized divisions, seven infantry divisions and a commando brigade, citing sources in the defence ministry, opposition and personal contacts.
Statement attributable to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi on the situation in Ethiopia’s Tigray region
Ethiopian refugees fleeing clashes in the country’s northern Tigray region, cross the border into Hamdayet, Sudan. © UNHCR/Hazim Elhag
I am deeply alarmed about the safety and well-being of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia, who have been caught in the conflict in the Tigray region. For over a month, UNHCR and humanitarian partners have had no access to the four Eritrean refugee camps inside Tigray, putting the safety and survival of the refugees at great risk.
The government of Ethiopia has said it will guarantee humanitarian access to the Tigray region for the UN and its partners. While the signed agreement is one first step, it needs to be implemented in a way that ensures safe and unhindered access for humanitarian workers in accordance with the principles of neutrality and impartiality. Such access is urgently needed so we can provide desperately needed assistance to refugees and other vulnerable populations.
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.
Ethiopia has a long-standing tradition of welcoming and hosting refugees who were forced to flee. I am strongly urging the government of Ethiopia to continue to uphold their responsibility towards refugees under international law, and to ensure the protection and safety of all refugees in the country.
To find safety and basic means of survival, many Eritrean refugees are fleeing the camps to locations both within Tigray and other regions of Ethiopia. We have met with some who managed to reach Addis Ababa. It is vital that Eritrean refugees be able to move to safe locations, and receive protection and assistance wherever possible, including outside of Tigray, given the traumatic events they report to have witnessed or survived. We remain committed to supporting and working with the Ethiopian government in this regard.
Meanwhile, the government and people of Sudan have generously welcomed the nearly 50,000 Ethiopian refugees who have sought safety in their country since the beginning of the conflict. UNHCR and partners have joined with the government to provide life-saving aid to people who are arriving exhausted, often following dangerous journeys to reach the border. I call on the international community to increase its support for the humanitarian response.
Ethiopian refugees in Sudan have expressed a desire to return home and rebuild their lives, but only when they can be assured of their safety and security. UNHCR stands ready to provide full support to the refugees at such time as they express a free and informed decision to return. Any returns must be safe, voluntary and dignified and take place in line with well-established principles on voluntary repatriation.
Mesfin Hagos: Eritrea’s Role in Ethiopia’s Conflict and the Fate of Eritrean Refugees
Eritrea’s Role in Ethiopia’s Conflict and the Fate of Eritrean Refugees in Ethiopia
BY: Mesfin Hagos, former Minister of Defense of Eritrea
In an address to his country’s parliament on November 30, 2020, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister confirmed Eritrean support to his ongoing war against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the regional government of the northernly regional state of Tigray. Dr. Abiy told parliamentarians that Ethiopian soldiers who survived TPLF attack on the night of November 3 were ordered to withdraw into Eritrea where they were provided shelter and the space and provisions to recuperate. He flew there with three of his generals to reorganize the troops for a counterattack on Tigray – from Eritrea.
What Prime Minister Abiy did not tell his audience was the fact that, according to sources in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, in the run up to the current conflict, a large number of Ethiopian elite units had slowly trickled into Eritrea as part of a security pact between Abiy and Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki. Hidden from public view at an ad-hoc base in Gherghera, in the outskirts of Asmara, these units were expected to be the hammer and the Northern Command the anvil to strike out of existence the TPLF. TPLF preempted this scheme in what it called “anticipatory defense”, which forced both Abiy and Isaias to improvise leading to the eruption of conflict over longer time period and vast space.
Dr. Abiy did not disclose to the Ethiopian public and international community that even more federal troops were airlifted into Eritrea following the outbreak of conflict on November 4. In the 48 hours before TPLF’s bombing of Asmara on November 14, local sources counted close to 30 military airplanes flying in thousands of soldiers from Ethiopia. Subsequent flights transported more soldiers into the Eritrean seaports of Massawa and Asseb.
The prime minister also hid from the world the Eritrean military’s direct involvement in combat along the entire border that Eritrea shares with Tigray regional state as well as inside Tigray. The following information is pieced together from three different sources: first, reliable sources inside the Eritrean ministry of defense; second, Eritrean opposition intelligence sources in Sudan and Ethiopia; and finally, anecdotal pieces communicated from friends and relatives, including some academic researchers.
When the reorganized and reinforced Ethiopian troops launched a series of offensives into Tigray from Eritrea along four frontlines, Eritrean support units provided intelligence and logistics, their heavy weapons gave cover to advancing federal troops, and eventually took active part in combat. Reliable sources have confirmed injury and death of a large number of Eritrean soldiers, including senior officers, in fighting deep inside Ethiopia.
Through Zalambessa alone, the Eritrean president sent in the 42nd and 49th mechanized divisions and the 11th, 17th, 19th and 27th infantry divisions. On reaching Edaga-Hamus, south of Adigrat and north of Mekelle, these divisions were reinforced with addition five Eritrean divisions, including the 2nd brigade of the 525th commando division. He also unleashed the 26th, 28th, and 53rd infantry and 46th and 48th mechanized divisions on the Adwa front along with only one division of the Ethiopian federal army. In addition, the TPLF claims that Eritrean technical and combat units also took active part in the Alamata front, southeast of Mekelle. The same TPLF sources also claim that they have Eritrean prisoners of war although they are yet to present them to the public – live or in recordings.
Although Eritrean army divisions have been shrinking in size in the past twenty years and their individual capacities shriveled, put together they are a formidable force. Their combined technical knowhow (intelligence and weaponry) as well as tactics and strategy expertise and experience can deliver blistering firepower against any adversary.
Either approving of or oblivious to President Isaias’ role in the planning, initiation and execution of the ongoing Ethiopian civil war, the international community commended his uncharacteristic silence in the fact of repeated TPLF rocket attacks on Eritrean towns. Abiy Ahmed’s complete media and communication blackout ensured that Eritrea’ intervention remained above scrutiny and censure.
Exacting Vengeance and Becoming Regional Strongman
Beside the Eritrean president’s delusions of grandeur and parallel desire to appear as regional strongman in the Horn of Africa and beyond, one has to look at the past two decades to understand his vindictiveness. During the 1998-2000 conflict against TPLF-led Ethiopia, Isaias Afwerki refused to listen to our colleagues’ warnings against going to war; and, when he did, he refused to listen to common sense and practical advice from former army and intelligence chiefs, each of whom had had far more combat leadership experience than himself – although he had overall command as the leader of the movement and government. As a result, he badly mismanaged the war and lost terribly, with grave consequences to Eritrea and Eritreans. The stubborn that he is, he dug in and stayed the course of regional confrontation for the subsequent twenty years that cost him dearly.
President Isaias ruthlessly held on to power and kept Eritrea on war footing, frustrating any prospect of recovery or normalcy. With every year that went by, his significance diminished and his legacy tarnished. He blamed the TPLF for all this and did everything in his power to make them pay for it. He saw his own vindication in TPLF’s demise and every case of TPLF domestic repression and external belligerence was an opportunity for him until Dr. Abiy came to power and outdid Isaias in that task. The unlikely bond between the dashing new prime minister and the aging president is a marriage of convenience that centered around the singular goal of liquidating the TPLF. I will spare the details of what followed and led to November 4, but the writing was on the wall: a conflict war inevitable.
Caught in a Jam – Desperation of Eritrean refugees in Tigray
In the past two decades of President Isaias’s unbridled repression, some half million Eritrean youth, elderly and unaccompanied minors fled their country. In the context of the conflict between the two countries, Ethiopia readily accepted those fleeing Eritrea and, with the help of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), housed them in some six refugee camps in Tigray and Afar regional states. As a sign of what was to come, in April 2020 Abiy Ahmed’s government changed its policy toward Eritrean refugees on the behest of the Eritrean president: newly arrived Eritreans were no longer granted automatic protection as refugees, although the Tigray regional government continued to accept them and let them stay unmolested.
When the current conflict broke out, there were close to 100,000 officially registered refugees in the four camps in Tigray alone and many thousands more in Tigrayan towns. While the refugees in the Afar region of Ethiopia have all along been in precarious conditions, those in Tigray were suddenly caught in the crossfire when the conflict broke out. It was first rumored that several refugees were either killed or wounded in the fighting close to their camps around the town of Shire. The fact that UNHCR personnel were ordered to leave Tigray and employees of Ethiopian federal government’s Agency for Refugee & Returnee Affairs (ARRA) simply did not show up left the camps unattended to. The total communications blackout made it impossible to find out what exactly was going on in the camps. But as the war dragged on, we are able to piece together the grave danger that the refugees are facing.
To begin with, all the camps have now run out of the measly supplies of basic necessities that they were left with. Source have also reported that the Eritrean military entered some of those camps and marched an unknown number of refugees out of camp at gun point. The Shimelba refugee camp is even reported to be under the control of the Eritrean military that is preparing to send a large number of them back to Eritrea. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said on November 29 that he was very concerned about the fate of the Eritrean refugees in the war zone amid reports that some have been abducted by the Asmara government, a regime that has absolutely no regard for international norms or opinion.
A way forward
The Ethiopian government is duty bound under international law to protect refugees. It is the duty of the international community to ensure that the Ethiopian government, as the host state, abides by its international obligations in this regard. A clear, timely and unambiguous message must be conveyed to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed about the dire consequences of not living up to its legal responsibility towards the refugees and asylum seekers. This cannot be achieved in isolation of the quest for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. And peaceful resolution of the Ethiopian conflict is unlikely to happen so long as President Isaias Afwerki is determined to wreck vengeance on the TPLF, and as long as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed entreats him to do so and actively entertains his regional ambitions. The international community has to tell President Isaias in no uncertain terms that continued intervention in internal Ethiopian affairs bears grave, direct consequences.
Source: The Economist
War in the Horn
Evidence mounts that Eritrean forces are in Ethiopia
Their presence will make it harder to bring peace to Tigray
Dec 30th 2020
First come muffled sobs, gradually growing louder with each new voice that joins the chorus. A woman in a black shawl begins to wail, her body rocking towards the portrait of a smiling young man in the middle of the room. Abraham was 35 years old when he was shot, says an older brother who is hosting mourning relatives on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. Last month armed men arrived at the family home in Adwa, a town in the northern region of Tigray. By then many of the town’s residents had fled, but not Abraham, who had a young child and a sick, ageing father. When the gunmen tried to steal two of the family’s trucks, Abraham resisted. He was shot dead on the spot, in front of his father.
According to his family, Abraham’s killers were from Eritrea, a neighbouring country whose troops have been fighting alongside Ethiopian government forces against the recently-ousted rulers of Tigray. There is little reason to doubt their claim. Although phone lines to Adwa have been cut since the fighting started in early November, they know what happened to Abraham from a family friend who met his father, as well as neighbours who escaped to Mekelle, the regional capital.
Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, has consistently denied enlisting the help of soldiers from Eritrea, the gulag state next door. But Abiy’s denials ring hollow in the face of a growing number of claims like those of Abraham’s family, as well as by foreign diplomats and governments. In December America said reports of Eritrea’s involvement were “credible” and urged it to withdraw. Belgian journalists who made a rare trip into Tigray found video footage apparently showing an Eritrean tank loaded with plunder.
Exposing Eritrea’s involvement matters because both governments have gone to such lengths to deny it. Abiy told António Guterres, the secretary-general of the un, that no Eritrean soldiers had entered Ethiopia. His government says Tigray’s now-renegade ruling party, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (tplf), made fake Eritrean uniforms to spread misinformation. Eritrea’s foreign minister told Reuters that Eritrea was not a party to the conflict.
Others say that Eritrea’s involvement is not only real but highly significant. It won independence from Ethiopia in 1993. The two countries fought a bloody border war in the late 1990s followed by two decades of low-level conflict that ended with a peace deal in 2018 (for which Abiy won the Nobel peace prize in 2019). Much of the fighting was along Tigray’s border, leading to bitter enmity between Eritreans and the tplf.
This bitterness may explain the destruction that Eritrean forces have left in their wake. They are accused of killing civilians, looting, laying waste to farmland and abducting some of the 100,000 Eritrean refugees who had fled their own totalitarian government and sought safety in camps in Tigray.
Using foreign troops to fight a war on his own soil besmirches Abiy’s reputation and will complicate efforts to pacify Tigray. “The government will never admit it,” says an Ethiopian analyst. “Because they know they could never justify it to the Tigrayans.”
Awet Tewelde Weldemichael, an Eritrean academic at Queen’s University in Canada, says that in recent weeks there seems to have been a phased withdrawal of Eritrean troops. If true, it might suggest Abiy has had enough of them. Or it might mean that Issaias Afwerki, Eritrea’s dictator, is confident that his old foes in the tplf have been routed. Although fighting is reported to be continuing in several parts of Tigray, the tplf leadership—thought to be holed up somewhere in the mountains—has been mostly silent for weeks. On December 18th the Ethiopian government offered a reward worth the equivalent of $260,000 for information on their whereabouts.
It is not just Eritrea that has a stake in Ethiopia’s civil war. Clashes between Sudanese forces and militias from Amhara, a region to the south of Tigray, have turned deadly in recent weeks. They are fighting over a large slice of fertile farmland that is within Sudan’s borders but long occupied by Amhara farmers. Shortly after the war began in Tigray, Sudanese troops moved into positions that had previously been held by the Ethiopian army. Since then each side has accused the other of upping the ante. On December 22nd Ethiopia’s deputy prime minister accused Sudanese forces of looting. Sudan’s information minister countered by accusing the Ethiopian army of taking part in border attacks. Talks and a visit to Addis Ababa in December by Abdalla Hamdok, Sudan’s prime minister, have failed to resolve the matter.
These tensions are unlikely to blow up into a full-scale war between the two states. But if the border conflict is not resolved, Sudan could prolong the fighting in Tigray by, for instance, turning a blind eye to arms and other supplies crossing the border. That would be a headache for Abiy, whose forces are already overstretched trying to locate the tplf’s guerrilla forces while also battling armed insurgents and quelling inter-ethnic fighting elsewhere in the country.
On December 23rd more than 200 civilians, mostly Amharas, were massacred by heavily armed ethnic militiamen in the western region of Benishangul-Gumuz. Similar incidents have been reported in western Oromia in recent weeks. Ethnic Somalis and Afars in the country’s east are also trading deadly blows. Ethiopia, already a tinder box, risks igniting a wider conflagration across the Horn of Africa. ■
This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the headline “The widening war”
Source: New York Times
NAIROBI, Kenya — As fighting raged across the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia last month, a group of soldiers arrived one day at Hitsats, a small hamlet ringed by scrubby hills that was home to a sprawling refugee camp of 25,000 people.
The refugees had come from Eritrea, whose border lies 30 miles away, part of a vast exodus in recent years led by desperate youth fleeing the tyrannical rule of their leader, one of Africa’s longest-ruling autocrats. In Ethiopia, Eritrea’s longtime adversary, they believed they were safe.
But the soldiers who burst into the camp on Nov. 19 were also Eritrean, witnesses said. Mayhem quickly followed — days of plunder, punishment and bloodshed that ended with dozens of refugees being singled out and forced back across the border into Eritrea.
For weeks, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia has denied that soldiers from Eritrea — a country that Ethiopia once fought in an exceptionally brutal war — had entered Tigray, where Mr. Abiy has been fighting since early November to oust rebellious local leaders.
In fact, according to interviews with two dozen aid workers, refugees, United Nations officials and diplomats — including a senior American official — Eritrean soldiers are fighting in Tigray, apparently in coordination with Mr. Abiy’s forces, and face credible accusations of atrocities against civilians. Among their targets were refugees who had fled Eritrea and its harsh leader, President Isaias Afwerki.
“Abiy has invited a foreign country to fight against his own people,” said Awol Allo, a former Abiy supporter turned outspoken critic who lectures in law at Keele University in Britain. “The implications are huge.”
Mr. Abiy insists he was forced to move his army quickly in Tigray after the region’s leaders, who had dominated Ethiopia for 27 years until Mr. Abiy took over in 2018, mutinied against his government. But in the early weeks of the fight, Ethiopian forces were aided by artillery fired by Eritrean forces from their side of the border, an American official said.
Since then, Mr. Abiy’s campaign has been led by a hodgepodge of forces, including federal troops, ethnic militias and, evidently, soldiers from Eritrea.
At Hitsats, Eritrean soldiers initially clashed with local Tigrayan militiamen in battles that rolled across the camp. Scores of people were killed, including four Ethiopians employed by the International Rescue Committee and the Danish Refugee Council, aid workers said.
The chaos deepened in the days that followed, when Eritrean soldiers looted aid supplies, stole vehicles and set fire to fields filled with crops and a nearby forested area used by refugees to collect wood, aid workers said. The camp’s main water tank was riddled with gunfire and emptied.
Their accounts are supported by satellite images, obtained and analyzed by The New York Times, that show large patches of newly scorched earth in and around the Hitsats camp after the Eritrean forces swept through.
Later, soldiers singled out several refugees — camp leaders, by some accounts — bundled them into vehicles and sent them back across the border to Eritrea.
“She’s crying, crying,” said Berhan Okbasenbet, an Eritrean now in Sweden whose sister was driven from Hitsats to Keren, the second-largest city in Eritrea, alongside a son who was shot in the fighting. “It’s not safe for them in Eritrea. It’s not a free country.”
Ms. Berhan asked not to publish their names, fearing reprisals, but provided identifying details that The New York Times verified with an Ethiopian government database of refugees.
Mr. Abiy’s spokeswoman did not respond to questions for this article. However, a few weeks ago the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, bluntly asked Mr. Abiy if Eritrean troops were fighting in his war. “He guaranteed to me that they have not entered Tigrayan territory,” Mr. Guterres told reporters on Dec. 9.
Those denials have been met with incredulity from Western and United Nations officials.
The Trump administration has demanded that all Eritrean troops immediately leave Tigray, a United States official said, citing reports of widespread looting, killings and other potential war crimes.
It remains unclear how many Eritreans are in Tigray, or precisely where, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss delicate diplomacy. A communications blackout over Tigray since Nov. 4 has effectively shielded the war from outside view.
But that veil has slowly lifted in recent weeks, as witnesses fleeing Tigray or reaching telephones have begun to give accounts of the fighting, the toll on civilians and pervasive presence of Eritrean soldiers.
In interviews, some described fighters with Eritrean accents and wearing Ethiopian uniforms. Others said they witnessed televisions and refrigerators being looted from homes and businesses. A European official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential findings, said some of those stolen goods were being openly sold in the Eritrean capital, Asmara.
Three sources, including a different Western official, said they had received reports of an Eritrean attack on a church in Dinglet, in eastern Tigray, on Nov. 30. By one account, 35 people whose names were provided were killed.
The reports of Eritrean soldiers sweeping through Tigray are especially jarring to many Ethiopians.
Ethiopia and Eritrea were once the best of enemies, fighting a devastating border war in the late 1990s that cost 100,000 lives. Although the two countries are now officially at peace, many Ethiopians are shocked that the old enemy is roaming freely inside their borders.
“How did we let a state that is hostile to our country come in, cross the border and brutalize our own people?” said Tsedale Lemma, editor in chief of the Addis Standard newspaper. “This is an epic humiliation for Ethiopia’s pride as a sovereign state.”
Mr. Abiy has already declared victory in Tigray and claimed, implausibly, that no civilians have died. But last week his government offered a $260,000 reward for help in capturing fugitive leaders from the regional governing party, the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front — a tacit admission that Mr. Abiy has failed to achieve a major stated goal of his campaign.
In fact, the biggest winner so far may be his Eritrean ally, Mr. Isaias.
Since coming to power in 1993, Mr. Isaias has won a reputation as a ruthless and dictatorial figure who rules with steely determination at home and who meddles abroad to exert his influence.
For a time he supported the Islamist extremists of the Shabab in Somalia, drawing U.N. sanctions on Eritrea, before switching his loyalties to the oil-rich — and Islamist-hating — United Arab Emirates.
Inside Eritrea, Mr. Isaias enforced a harsh system of endless military service that fueled a tidal wave of migration that has driven over 500,000 Eritreans — perhaps one-tenth of the population — into exile.
The peace pact signed by the two leaders initially raised hopes for a new era of stability in the region. Ultimately, it amounted to little. By this summer, borders that opened briefly had closed again.
But Mr. Abiy and Mr. Isaias remained close, bonded by their shared hostility toward the rulers of Tigray.
They had different reasons to distrust the Tigrayans. For Mr. Abiy the Tigray People’s Liberation Front was a dangerous political rival — a party that had once led Ethiopia and, once he became prime minister, began to flout his authority openly.
For Mr. Isaias, though, it was a deeply personal feud — a story of grievances, bad blood and ideological disputes that stretched back to the 1970s, when Eritrea was fighting for independence from Ethiopia, and Mr. Isaias joined with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front to fight an Ethiopian Marxist dictator.
Those differences widened after 1991, when Eritrea became independent and the Tigrayans had come to power in Ethiopia, culminating in a devastating border war.
As tensions rose between Mr. Abiy and the T.P.L.F., Mr. Isaias saw an opportunity to settle old scores and to reassert himself in the region, said Martin Plaut, author of “Understanding Eritrea” and a senior research fellow at the University of London.
“It’s typical Isaias,” said Mr. Plaut. “He seeks to project power in ways that are completely unimaginable for the leader of such a small country.”
Aid groups warn that, without immediate access, Tigray will soon face a humanitarian disaster. The war erupted just as villagers were preparing to harvest their crops, in a region already grappling with swarms of locusts and recurring drought.
Refugees are especially vulnerable. According to the United Nations, 96,000 Eritrean refugees were in Tigray at the start of the fight, although some camps have since emptied. An internal U.N. report from Dec. 12, seen by The Times, described the situation at Hitsats as “extremely dire,” with no food or water.
Farther north at Shimelba camp, Eritrean soldiers beat refugees, tied their hands and left them under the sun all day, said Efrem, a resident who later fled to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.
“They poured milk on their bodies so they would be swarmed with flies,” he said.
Later, Efrem said, the soldiers rounded up 40 refugees and forced them to travel back across the border, to Eritrea.