Washington says reports of Eritrean involvement in the Tigray conflict are credible, although both Ethiopia and Eritrea have repeatedly denied the claim.
“This is a grave development,” said a US State Department Spokesman, describing what it said were “credible reports” of Eritrean troops fighting alongside the Ethiopian army in the northern Tigray state against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
“We urge that any such troops be withdrawn immediately,” the spokesperson continued.
Though Ethiopia and Eritrea have previously denied the allegations of Eritrean involvement, with Abiy Ahmed insisting that the conflict in Tigray is an “internal affair”, the American intervention adds weight to statements previously made by the TPLF.
Guardian claim “#Eritrea soldiers fought alongside Ethiopian troops” is patently fictional. Such fabrication fits the criminals that attacked #Ethiopia North. Comand not Guardian. Corroboration is core value of journalistic profession & is disregarded herehttps://t.co/hfChpGY5lW— Fitsum Arega (@fitsumaregaa) December 9, 2020
The TPLF accused the Ethiopian government of allowing the Eritreans to enter the conflict on ''several fronts''. Debtresion Gebremichael, ousted head of the Tigray state and TPLF chief also said his forces had captured Eritrean soldiers near Wikro, a town roughly 50km north of the Tigray capital Mekelle, though no evidence was shown.
Mesfin Hagos, a former Eritrean defence minister also claimed that Eritrea had deployed 7 infantry divisions, and 4 mechanized divisions as well as a commando unit citing sources in the Eritrean defence ministry and Eritrean opposition members.
Mohammed Omer, a former member of the Eritrean Liberation Front previously also told TRT World that “local sources from the field in Eritrea tell us that Eritrea is fully engaged in fighting.”
Refugees fleeing the fighting have also reported seeing troops in Eritrean uniforms, and UN teams have said the same. The Ethiopian government said uniforms were manufactured by the TPLF and the UN chief said he has received no proof.
Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia have also been fleeing refugee camps as reports of abductions by Eritrean troops, as well as concerns about dwindling humanitarian supplies grow.
Ethiopia: food rations for displaced people in Tigray have run out. We reiterate our urgent call for unconditional & safe humanitarian access to the affected regions. People in need are still not able to access any assistance. https://t.co/h8nSo9SHW4 pic.twitter.com/ZqPNAlwux9— UN Humanitarian (@UNOCHA) December 11, 2020
“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” Babar Baloch, a spokesperson for UNHCR tells TRT World. “If confirmed, these actions would constitute a major violation of international law.”
The UNHCR, Baloch says, hasn’t had access to border areas near Eritrea, nor the four Eritrean refugee camps inside Tigray, and cannot yet confirm the emerging reports.
“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. UNHCR has met with some who managed to reach Addis Ababa” Baloch continues.
“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.”.
The TPLF was once the most powerful faction in Ethiopia’s now-defunct ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The EPRDF fought a brutal border war with Eritrea between 1998-2000 which killed tens of thousands until an agreement was reached to demarcate the border which wasn’t implemented.
Relations remained frosty for many years as a state of “no war, no peace” put the countries on a constant war footing, which played out domestically in both countries and in the wider region until Abiy Ahmed broke the deadlock in 2018.
“The TPLF, and the EPLF [Eritrean People’s Liberation Front], were challenging the same enemy, the Derg regime in the 80s and have feuds and problems which go back to that era but I think the bigger problem is the Ethiopia-Eritrea border dispute” says Afyare Elmi an Associate Professor of Security Studies at Qatar University. “That is the main reason Afwerki never liked the TPLF”.
The EPLF would go on to separate Eritrea from Ethiopia and form the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), Eritrea’s only legal party today, but border issues remained unsolved which left bad blood between Eritrea’s president Afwerki and the TPLF leadership.
When an independent commission which both parties accepted ruled that Badme, a key border town, should go to Eritrea, Ethiopia under TPLF leadership rejected the decision.
“What makes the situation complicated is that, because the TPLF resisted the official transfer of the control of Badme to Eritrea - and as a ‘forced transfer’ has not, as of yet, been pursued by Abiy - the optics remain unclear” Ann Fitz-Gerald, Director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs tells TRT World.
The US previously applauded Eritrea’s “restraint”, and condemned TPLF’s attempts to internationalize the conflict through rocket attacks on Eritrea’s capital Asmara. They also initially slammed the TPLF for provoking the federal government.
Tibor Nagy, the US’s top diplomat for Africa said that there is no “equivalency here”, explaining that on one side of the conflict there is a sovereign government, and on the other a regional government which “basically started a conflict against the government.”
The statements more recently however have begun taking a different tone, with the US more often calling for an immediate cessation of violence, opening of dialogue and unhindered humanitarian access.
A bipartisan resolution which passed through the US Senate also “strongly disapproved” of tensions between Addis Ababa and Mekelle, calling for negotiation and humanitarian access, fearing the regional consequences of this conflict.
“I don’t anticipate a massive swing in the US position towards the conflict” says Ann Fitz-Gerald. “The US and Ethiopia have a longstanding relationship and the US has significant security interests in the Horn of Africa region, which the Ethiopia Government has played an important role in supporting.”
Ethiopia remains a key US partner in Somalia where it has soldiers supporting the federal government against Al Shabab as part of an AMISOM peacekeeping mission, and through a bilateral agreement with Somalia.
Ethiopia also has a large presence in South Sudan where its peacekeepers have contributed to helping stabilize the country.
“But like many of Ethiopia’s allies at the moment, the US is concerned with the lack of information to corroborate so many of the claims emerging in the media and from those based in the region. These details will hopefully become subject to investigation with answers forthcoming in the weeks to come.”