“This looks like a war of months and years, not days and weeks.”
Monday – 4th of January – marks two months since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent his forces into Tigray.
He declared it was an internal matter – no more than a “law enforcement operation” which will “wrap up soon by ending the prevailing impunity.”
Two months later this claim looks increasingly hollow.
From the first this was not just an internal operation by a sovereign state. Eritrean troops joined the offensive, as did Amhara militia.
The scale of the Eritrean participation was provided by the former Eritrean Minister of Defence, Mesfin Hagos. This website was the first to publish what he had to say on 3 December. This is an extract of Mesfin’s assessment.
“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.”
While not endorsing the analysis presented by Mesfin Hagos, a number of foreign powers accept that Eritrea is, indeed, involved in the war.
This includes the United States, European Union and the UK.
As the Economist magazine put it: “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.
The current state of the conflict
Getting firm information is difficult: almost all local and foreign journalists have been forbidden from visiting the region. There appear to be no journalists on the frontline – even pro-government embedded reporters.
There have been no recent maps indicating who holds what territory. One from the middle of December shows areas being held by the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, while the Tigrayans continued to attack across a number of fronts.
This appears to be confirmed from the assessment below.
In the last two days the Europe External Programme for Africa provided this assessment:
Military situation (as confirmed per 2 January 2021)
- The TPLF is keeping control of mountainous areas in Tigray. As many analysts predicted when Mekelle was taken, the ENDF has had difficulties driving the TPLF out of well entrenched mountain positions.
- The ENDF has launched an offensive towards Samre, East of Mekelle.
- Reported cruelties against civilians include forcing relatives to commit incest on women and girls under the threath of arbitrary execution.
- Report that 150 civilians were hiding in a church in Edagahamus, Tigray. They were, reportedly, brutally killed. It is estimated that 300 civilians were killed in Edagahamus and surrounding.
- Many towns in Tigray have been attacked by ENDF and Eritrean troops by heavy artillery. The towns include: Humera, Shire, Aksum, Adwa, Adigrat, Wukro, Mekelle, Hewane, Workamba, Abi Adi, and Hagerselam. In these operations innocent civilians were attacked.
- In Mekelle, Tigray, there were air strikes and bombings on Saint George church, two Mekelle university campuses and ‘adishimdehun’, kebeles 03, 05, 11, 14 & 15, ‘Enda Gebriel’, ‘70 kare’, and ‘Latchi’.
- Abi Adi, Tigray, and its outskirts, has been hit by airstrikes on civilian neighbourhoods for one week.
- It is reported that 1000 civilians were killed in attacks on Aksum town and 500 civilians in Wukro.
- It is reported that hundreds of civilians were killed in smaller towns of Hazwzen, Digum and Nebelet.
- Pictures are emerging of the heavily damaged Al Negash Mosque in Tigray. There are clear signs of shelling. It was first reported that the mosque had been destroyed on 18 december. Reportedly, the mosque was first bombed and later looted by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops.
- The Al Negash Mosque is thought to be the oldest mosque in Africa, dating back to the 7th century. It is a UNESCO world Heritage site and was recently restored. People died trying to protect the mosque.
- Foreign Minister Demeke, Ethiopia, rejects the TPLF-claim to have carried out a pre-emptive strike.
- TPLF stated it was provoked on 3 Nov when the Ethiopian government sent commandos in an Antonov and/or cargo plane, under pretext of delivering new banknotes, allegedly with the intention to capture the Tigray regional government, which was assembled in a meeting in Planet hotel in Mekelle.
- Multiple sources state that Eritrean soldiers are blocked in attempts to leave Tigray. Heavy fighting between Ethiopia National Defense Forces (ENDF) and Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) is taking place near the major roads out to Eritrea. This has stopped the Eritrean transfer of looted goods out of the region.
- A source says that the ENDF is handing Shire, Tigray, to Eritrean troops. Eritrean telecom is servicing the area. Some people received calls. The Shire area hosts 100.000 Eritrean refugees.
- A source states that the Tigray Egela Woreda (including Gerhu-Sirnay, Semhal, May-Hamato, Leyto, Endaba-Estifanos, and Gere’a), on the border with Eritrea, is occupied by Eritrean soldiers and Eritrean telecom is providing full coverage. Citizens made calls, using phones of Eritrean troops.
- The TPLF says that it has shot down an ENDF air force gunship on 30/12 8:30.
- Belgian TV shows footage of dozens of “shot-up army vehicles”.
- Reports of rape of Tigray women as part of the violence carried out on civilians in Tigray.
- Sudan has declared that it achieved control of its territory occupied by Ethiopian farmers after several weeks of fighting in the area. Ethiopian Minister of Foreign Affairs accused Sudan of sending troops into Ethiopia, which is denied by Sudan. Negotiations between the countries broke down last week.
What can we conclude?
Although the situation is far from clear we can come to some conclusions.
- Far from being a policing operation that can be resolved in a matter of days – as PM Abiy suggested two months ago, this is now a full-scale war. Although the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle has fallen, the TPLF has withdrawn its military to the mountains and hills and is conducting a guerilla campaign, just as it did pre-1991. This looks like a war of months and years, not days and weeks.
- This is not an “internal affair”, rather it is an international war. Eritrean forces have been involved from the start, as acknowledged by the new Mayor of Mekelle, installed by PM Abiy. Prosperity Party Appointee, Acting Mayor Atakilti Haileslassie, said: “We’re pressing the Federal Government and Higher Military Personnel of ENDF to enforce the withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Tigray.” Also adds “They were invited in after NC [Northern Command] was attacked.”
- The position of PM Abiy has been weakened by the loss of land to Sudan in the region of Gadaref. Taking the al-Fashqa triangle has left Ethiopia (and the Amhara who occupied the area) in a weakened position.
- The humanitarian situation in Tigray itself is critical. There has been widespread looting and destruction of property, including religious sites. There are serious warnings of widespread hunger and even the prospect of famine unless aid reaches Tigray. Meanwhile, ethnic profiling of Tigreans in Addis Ababa and other cities, as well as a purging of Tigrean staff on Ethiopian Airlines has continued.
- The four camps, holding 96,000 Eritrean refugees before this war broke out, have been overrun. Two closest to Eritrea have received no aid for at least five weeks. There are reports that many of the refugees have been either forcibly conscripted into the Eritrean military or returned to an uncertain fate in Eritrea itself.
It is unlikely that the Tigray war will be ended without international assistance. The European Union has been engaged with the conflict, but the USA, under President Trump, has failed to show leadership. Perhaps this will change once the Biden administration takes office.