Eritrea will pull its troops out of the Tigray region, Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, has said, a potential breakthrough in a conflict in which both countries have been accused of abuses against civilians.
Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel peace prize, faces mounting pressure to end fighting in the drawn-out conflict in which troops are thought to have carried out mass killings and rapes.
Abiy sent troops into Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray on 4 November after blaming its once-dominant ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), for attacks on army camps.
For months, both countries denied that Eritrean troops were in Tigray, contradicting accounts from residents, aid workers, diplomats and even some Ethiopian civilian and military officials.
On Tuesday, in an appearance before lawmakers, Abiy finally admitted to Eritrea’s role, then on Thursday flew to the country’s capital, Asmara, to meet with the president, Isaias Afwerki.
Abiy said, in a statement on Twitter on Friday, that during that visit “the government of Eritrea has agreed to withdraw its forces out of the Ethiopian border. The Ethiopian National Defense Force will take over guarding the border areas effective immediately.”
Eritrea’s information minister, Yemane Gebremeskel, has been asked for comment.
Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a border war beginning in 1998 that left tens of thousands dead and resulted in a 20-year stalemate.
Abiy won his Nobel in large part for initiating a surprise rapprochement with Isaias after taking office in 2018, but Eritrea and the TPLF remained bitter enemies.
In his wide-ranging speech to parliament on Tuesday, Abiy said the “Eritrean people and government did a lasting favour to our soldiers” during the conflict in Tigray.
His statement on Friday noted that the TPLF fired rockets on Asmara multiple times, “thereby provoking the Eritrean government to cross Ethiopian borders and prevent further attacks and maintain its national security”.
Yet Abiy has acknowledged only that Eritrean troops took over areas along the border, including trenches dug during the border war, after they were abandoned by Ethiopian soldiers. Rights groups and Tigrayan residents have described a much deeper Eritrean presence.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accused Eritrean troops of killing hundreds of Tigrayans in a massacre in November in the town of Axum. AFP has documented a massacre allegedly carried out by Eritrean troops in the town of Dengolat, also in November.
During a visit this month to the town of Wukro, 30 miles north of regional capital, Mekelle, residents said Eritrean soldiers were still present, sometimes donning Ethiopian uniforms to disguise themselves.
Abiy told lawmakers that any abuses carried out by Eritrean soldiers would be “unacceptable”, and that he had raised the issue “four or five times” with Asmara.
The Tigrayan opposition party, Salsay Weyane Tigray, said on Friday that any agreement about Eritrea’s withdrawal would be “useless” without “an international regulatory body to check”.
Hailu Kebede, head of the party’s foreign affairs department, said on Twitter: “It is another level of deception; a game they have been playing for a long time. Withdraw all forces and establish an international observatory team. The world mustn’t be fooled, again.”
The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has called for the exit of the Eritreans as well as forces from Ethiopia’s Amhara region, who have played a key role in securing parts of western and southern Tigray.
Officials in Amhara, however, say those parts of Tigray rightfully belong to them.
Abiy claimed victory in Tigray in late November after Ethiopian troops took Mekelle, but TPLF leaders remain on the run and fighting continues.
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