Rights groups and Tigrayan residents have accused Eritrean troops of massacring hundreds of people in villages in the region.

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (L) meeting with Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki at the Presidential Palace in Asmara, Eritrea, on March 26, 2021.
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (L) meeting with Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki at the Presidential Palace in Asmara, Eritrea, on March 26, 2021. (AFP)

Eritrea will pull its troops out of Ethiopia's northern Tigray region, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed says, a potential breakthrough in a drawn-out conflict that has seen atrocities carried out against civilians.

The announcement comes as Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, faces mounting pressure to end fighting in which both Eritrean and Ethiopian troops stand accused of abuses including mass killings and rapes.

Abiy sent troops into Tigray on November 4 after accusing the region's once-dominant ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), of attacks on army camps.

For months both Addis Ababa and Asmara denied Eritrean troops were in Tigray, contradicting accounts from residents, aid workers, diplomats and even some Ethiopian civilian and military officials.

The new statement doesn’t say how many Eritrean soldiers have been in Ethiopia, though witnesses have estimated well in the thousands.

READ MORE: UN warns of crisis in Ethiopia's Tigray, calls for end to killing and rape

Abiy admits Eritrea's role 

Abiy finally admitted Eritrea's role in an appearance before lawmakers Tuesday, then flew Thursday to Asmara to meet with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki.

During that visit "the government of Eritrea has agreed to withdraw its forces out of the Ethiopian border," Abiy said in a statement posted to his Twitter account Friday.

"The Ethiopian National Defense Force will take over guarding the border areas effective immediately."

Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

In a statement Friday afternoon, his office made no mention of any deal on a troop withdrawal, saying only that the two sides "agreed to hold follow-up consultative meetings" in Addis Ababa.

But the country's ambassador to Japan, Estifanos Afeworki, said on Twitter that "as of today" Eritrean forces would "hand over all posts" that were "vacated" by Ethiopian troops when the conflict began.

READ MORE: Why deadly crisis in Ethiopia's Tigray region is growing

Eritrean troops presence in Ethiopia

Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a border war beginning in 1998 that left tens of thousands dead and resulted in a two-decade 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 Tuesday, Abiy said the "Eritrean people and government did a lasting favour to our soldiers" during the conflict in Tigray.

His statement Friday said 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."

Abiy has only acknowledged Eritrean troops took over areas along the border, including trenches dug during the border war, after they were abandoned by Ethiopian soldiers.

But rights groups and Tigrayan residents have described a much deeper Eritrean presence.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have accused Eritrean troops of massacring hundreds of people in the Tigrayan town of Axum in November.

AFP has separately documented a massacre allegedly carried out by Eritrean troops in the town of Dengolat, also in November.

Eritrean soldiers are also suspected of attacking two camps in Tigray housing tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees.

The UN announced Friday it had managed to reach the camps for the first time since November and confirmed they were "completely destroyed."

Dozens of civilians in Tigray told Reuters they had been victims of, or witnesses to, gang rapes and looting by Eritrean soldiers. Four had bullet wounds they said were from Eritrean attacks. Some said they had witnessed extrajudicial killings.

Reuters could not independently verify the accounts.

In his comments to Reuters earlier this month, Yemane said Eritrea had evidence that TPLF activists were “coaching” fake witnesses, but he did not share the evidence.

He did not comment at the time on whether Eritrean troops were in Tigray.

The TPLF has long been an enemy of Eritrea and repeatedly fired rockets at Eritrea after the conflict began.

During a visit this month to the town of Wukro, just 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of regional capital Mekele, residents told AFP that 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," saying he had raised the issue "four or five times" with Asmara.

READ MORE: HRW: Eritrea killed hundreds of civilians in Ethiopia massacre

Mixed reaction

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".

"It is another level of deception; a game they have been playing for a long time," Hailu Kebede, head of the party's foreign affairs department, said on Twitter.

The United States welcomed the move as an "important step" towards restoring peace.

"The immediate and complete withdrawal of the Eritrean troops from the Tigray region will be an important step in de-escalating the conflict, as well as restoring regional peace and stability," State Department spokeswoman Jalina Porter told reporters.

"We need to see immediate & unconditional removal of troops, hostilities to end and a political solution, " British foreign minister Dominic Raab tweeted on Friday.

Abiy claimed victory in Tigray in late November after Ethiopian troops took the main city Mekele, but TPLF leaders remain on the run and fighting continues.

READ MORE: Ethiopia’s leader admits rape, looting committed in Tigray war

Source: TRTWorld and agencies