NAIROBI, Kenya – After months of denial, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed admitted this week that Eritrean troops had been fighting in Tigray, the war-torn northern region of Ethiopia where brutal conflict between pro-government and local fighters it has become synonymous with atrocities against civilians.
On Friday, under mounting US and international pressure, Abiy took another step forward and announced that Eritrean soldiers had agreed to return home.
Abiy’s statement, issued after a meeting with President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, offered a glimmer of hope amid a series of horrific reports of widespread looting, massacres and sexual violence in Tigray.
Still, it was unclear whether all Eritrean forces would leave Tigray or just those stationed along the border, and how fast they would go.
United Nations officials and human rights groups have blamed many of the worst violations on Eritrea’s soldiers, even when Isaiah, the country’s notoriously secretive dictatorial leader, denied that his troops were present in Tigray.
Abiy flew to meet Isaiah on Thursday, days after an envoy sent by President Biden pressured the Ethiopian leader to stop the slaughter and reinforce American calls for the immediate withdrawal of Eritrean troops. soldiers to be withdrawn from Tigray.
On Friday, Eritrea’s information minister, Yemane Ghebremeskel, appeared to confirm Mr. Abiy’s statement that a withdrawal of Eritrean troops had been agreed. Public statements by both governments “underscore full agreement and consensus on all the issues discussed,” he said in a text message after Abiy left Eritrea’s capital Asmara.
Eritreans crossed the border into northern Ethiopia shortly after Abiy launched a military campaign in Tigray on November 4, accusing Tigray’s rebel leaders of orchestrating an attack on a major military base and trying to overthrow the federal government.
As the pace of fighting increased, reports of serious abuses against civilians began to emerge in Tigray. Ethiopian soldiers, fighters allied with the ethnic Ahmara militias and fighters loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front faced charges.
But United Nations officials and human rights groups singled out Eritrean troops for many of the worst violations. Last weekend, Abiy spent five hours in talks with US Senator Chris Coons, who had been sent to Ethiopia by President Biden to broadcast his alarm at the deteriorating situation.
In a briefing for journalists on Thursday, Coons said the talks were “frank” at times, and that Abiy had reiterated his promise to investigate human rights abuses in Tigray, including “credible reports of sexual violence as a tool of war. . “
But Abiy has failed to meet such commitments before, Coons said, and the United States intends to keep up the pressure. “It is the stocks that are going to matter,” he said.
On Friday, a State Department spokeswoman welcomed Ethiopia’s announcement, calling it “an important step” toward de-escalation.
In a mark of impunity that has come to characterize the Tigray conflict, Ethiopian soldiers dragged civilians from a bus on a main road in Tigray and executed four of them in front of humanitarian workers from Doctors Without Borders, the group said in a meeting. released Thursday. .
Eritrea and Ethiopia have been bitter enemies for most of the past three decades, waging a border war in the late 1990s that claimed tens of thousands of lives. But they reconciled in 2018, signing a landmark peace agreement shortly after Abiy came to power.
The pact earned Abiy the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 and helped Isaías, one of the world’s most repressive leaders, emerge from international isolation. However, after the Tigray War broke out in November, critics said the two leaders were mostly united by their shared hostility towards the Tigray leaders.
It was unclear on Friday whether Abiy’s announcement signaled a potential breakthrough to end the fighting in Tigray or another feint by two leaders under international pressure.
In his statement, Mr. Abiy said that Eritrea had agreed to withdraw its forces “outside the border with Ethiopia”, where, with immediate effect, Ethiopian soldiers were to assume border surveillance functions.
But it was unclear if that included Eritrean troops stationed deep in Tigray, where many of the worst atrocities have occurred.
Amnesty International has blamed Eritrean forces for the massacre of hundreds of civilians in Axum, a city in northern Tigray. Survivors of sexual violence in Tigray have blamed the horrific attacks on Eritrean troops.
A senior UN official told the Security Council on Thursday that more than 500 rape cases have been reported in five clinics in Tigray, although the actual number is likely much higher.
“Women say they have been raped by armed actors, they also told stories of gang rape, rape in front of family members and men forced to rape their own relatives under threat of violence,” said the official, Wafaa Said. .
Exactly how many Eritrean troops are stationed inside Tigray and where is unclear. Much of the region remains off-limits to aid workers and journalists, and sporadic fighting continues in rural and mountainous areas.
Still, the departure of all Eritrean troops would likely pose a serious military challenge for Abiy.
The Ethiopian army fractured in the early days of the war, when hundreds and possibly more Ethiopian soldiers defected to the rebel side, according to Western officials. Since then, Abiy has regained control of a swath of Tigray with the help of his allies: Amhara fighters and Eritrean soldiers.
If the Eritreans left en masse, some analysts say, government forces could find it difficult to maintain their control over the parts of Tigray they now control.