In early December, Ethiopian state television broadcast something unexpected: a fire exchange between civilians in Shire, in the northern region of Tigray, and Ethiopian soldiers, who had recently arrived in the area.
To the surprise of the onlookers who used to war propaganda, the elders of Tigray spoke in vivid detail of the horrors that had befallen the city since the outbreak of war between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the long-ruling ruling party. It dates from the region, which was ousted from the state capital of Mekelle in late November.
The residents had been “slaughtered like chickens,” the elders said, their corpses left to be “eaten by hyenas.” They also spoke of rampant looting and vandalism: “All government property has been destroyed and looted,” said one.
Perhaps most revealing, however, was the implication that those responsible for the carnage were not Ethiopian federal troops, but outsiders. “This problem needs to be solved immediately,” said an elder who addressed the generals and the newly appointed president of Tigray, Mulu Nega. “How can the institutions that should serve the government of the day be allowed to be destroyed and looted by hooligans who have no Ethiopian values in them?”
Thousands, including civilians, are believed to have died and nearly 50,000 people they have fled to Sudan since Ethiopia’s Tigray War began on 4 November. Pitched battles involving tanks and fighter jets, as well as the Amhara militia, which borders Tigray to the south, have razed towns and empty towns.
But according to eyewitnesses, humanitarian workers and diplomats, the clashes have also involved many thousands of soldiers from neighboring Eritrea, suggesting that what the Ethiopian government calls a “law enforcement operation” bears the stamp of conflict. regional.
Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki share a common enemy in the TPLF, which ruled Ethiopia’s federal government for nearly three decades before Abiy took office in 2018. Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a bloody war between 1998 and 2000 , which claimed about 100,000 lives. .
Earlier this month, former Tigray president Debretsion Gebremichael accused Eritrean forces of massive looting. Before that alleged Tigray’s forces were defending themselves against Eritrean divisions on several fronts. The TPLF has claimed responsibility for One of three missile attacks in Eritrea since the war began, arguing that he had acted in self-defense from the airport in Asmara, the capital, which was hit by at least two rockets in the attack, had been used to launch attacks.
Refugees crossing into Sudan have also made similar claims, telling journalists and aid workers that the artillery shells that hit cities in western Tigray came from Eritrea. But confirmation has been complicated by lack of access for outsiders, including the media, and cut off communications with the region. Phone lines were restored in parts of Tigray this month, but there is still no internet.
Abiy has denied all the allegations and told UN Secretary General António Guterres on December 9 that he could guarantee no Eritrean troops had entered Ethiopian territory.
However, his government acknowledges that Ethiopian troops who escaped to Eritrea at the beginning of the war were assisted by Eritreans who fed, clothed and armed them before returning to fight in Tigray.
“The people of Eritrea are not just our brothers”, Abiy told parliament last month. “They have also shown us practically that they are friends who were by our side on a difficult day.”
But diplomatic sources have backed allegations that Eritrean soldiers have actively participated in fighting inside Tigray. Reuters, which interviewed several unidentified diplomats in the region and a US official, revealed Earlier this month, the US government believed Eritrean soldiers had entered Ethiopian territory in mid-November through three northern border towns: Zalambessa, Rama and Badme.
A spokesperson for the US State Department later confirmed the details, marking a shift among US officials, who previously praised Eritrea for its “restriction”. “We are aware of the credible reports of Eritrea’s military involvement in Tigray and we regard this as a serious development,” the spokesman said. “We urge these troops to withdraw immediately.”
“In the jargon of the State Department, that means they have interceptions, satellites and maybe even human intelligence,” a top EU diplomat in the region told The Guardian. “From all that we have been told, it is incontrovertible that [Eritrean troops] They are involved. It’s absolutely clear. “
Mesfin Hagos, a former Eritrean defense minister turned opposition figure, said in an article for the online publication African Arguments, that Isaías had deployed four mechanized divisions, seven infantry divisions and a command brigade, citing sources from the Ministry of Defense, among others.
Wallelegn, a Tigrayan who was working in Shire when the war started and who later escaped to Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, told the Guardian that “the Eritreans were really at the forefront of Ethiopian forces in the area.”
“Their uniform is different and they are relatively old and thin compared to the Ethiopian defense forces,” he said. “In the first days of their arrival in Shire, they looted, shot randomly, mainly young people, and burned factories.”
He added: “At first, the Ethiopian forces were emotional and were not doing much to stop the attacks. But then they started to take over [and impose order]. “
Tigray is also home to some 100,000 Eritrean refugees, many of whom have fled indefinite national service and compulsory military service. When the war started they were stuck in the middle and cut off relief supplies.
A Shire humanitarian worker told the Guardian that many refugees in the Hitsats camp fled as soon as Eritrean troops arrived in the neighborhood on November 19. According to the source, the approaching “northern force” – a reference to Eritrean troops crossing the border from the north – armed refugees before looting property, slaughtering livestock and burning crops.
A senior UN official told The Guardian that they had received similar allegations, including the killing of three UN-employed security guards at Hitsats camp who tried to prevent the kidnapping of refugees and the forced recruitment of refugees to fight together. to the Eritrean army.
On December 11, the head of the UN refugee agency said it had received an “overwhelming” number of reports of Eritrean refugees in Tigray killed, kidnapped or returned to Eritrea in the past month. On the same day, the Ethiopian authorities began to send Eritrean refugees into Addis Ababa on buses and returning them to Tigray against your will. The Ethiopian government said it was “safely returning” the refugees to the camps where they would have access to “service delivery systems” to process their cases.
In recent days, according to a refugee based in Adi Harush camp, south of Hitsats, Eritrean soldiers accompanied by Ethiopian troops have patrolled the camp in search of individuals. “They were looking for name by name and from house to house. Their main target appears to be members of the opposition, ”said the refugee, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Eritrea’s state television, the only broadcasting outlet in the country, has not mentioned the conflict in Ethiopia since it began, say Eritreans living in Asmara. President Isaías has not spoken a word in public in response to the missiles fired at Asmara last month.
Neither does his Information Minister, Yemane Gebremeskel, whose office building narrowly escaped a rocket attack on November 13. Eritrea’s Foreign Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed acknowledged the war but denied any participation. “We are not part of the conflict,” he told Reuters last month.
Meanwhile, Ethiopian officials have accused the TPLF of fabricating fake Eritrean uniforms to falsely implicate its neighbors, and insist that the conflict remains a internal matter.
Meron Estefanos, director of the Eritrea Initiative on Refugee Rights, points out that not all allegations involving Eritreans are plausible. She told The Guardian that while some refugees and prominent opposition figures living in Ethiopia had certainly been returned to Eritrea, estimates of several thousand abductees are unlikely.
But on the broader claims of Eritrea’s involvement, he said: “People within Eritrea know exactly what is happening.
“I am sick and tired of the fact that, no matter how many Eritreans say there are Eritrean troops in Tigray, it is not confirmed until a foreign diplomat says so.”
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