Ethiopian army official confirms Eritrean troops in Tigray

Ethiopian army official confirms Eritrean troops in Tigray

A general view of Kassala Mountains near the border with Eritrea, eastern Sudan, Nov. 20, 2020. Ethiopia’s deadly conflict with its northern Tigray region… (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty) More

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — A senior Ethiopian military official has confirmed the presence of security forces from neighboring Eritrea in the deadly conflict in his country’s northern Tigray region, contradicting the Ethiopian government’s denials.

The United States last month said it believed Eritrean troops were active in Ethiopia, a “grave development,” as people fleeing the Tigray region alleged that Eritrean forces were involved in the fighting, targeting and abducting Eritrean refugees from camps near the Eritrean border as well as scores of Tigray residents. The fugitive Tigray leader also has alleged Eritrea’s involvement.

Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who was awarded the prize for making peace with Eritrea in 2018, had “guaranteed” that Eritrean forces had not entered Tigray, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said last month.

Eritrea, described by rights groups as one of the world’s most repressive countries, is a bitter enemy of the fugitive Tigray government, which once dominated Ethiopia’s government but was sidelined after Abiy took power and now sees his rule as illegitimate. Ethiopia’s government calls the Tigray leaders criminals.

The comments by Maj. Gen. Belay Seyoum, leader of the Northern Command of Ethiopia’s defense forces, were published Wednesday by the local Addis Standard magazine along with a video of him speaking to residents of the Tigray capital, Mekele, late last month.

“An alien army we didn’t want came in,” Belay said in the translated remarks. “We know the problems that are being raised, it’s painful, but who let them in?” They were not welcome, he added: “My conscience does not allow me to say, ‘Eritrean army, come and help us!’ We can solve our own problems on our own.”

A senior Ethiopian official, Redwan Hussein, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday as the country celebrated the Orthodox Christmas holiday. Eritrea’s information minister has not responded to requests for comment on the issue.

The involvement of Eritrean forces in a region where nearly 100,000 Eritrean refugees shelter in camps has been a major source of alarm for humanitarian workers and others. Two of the refugee camps remain virtually unreachable after the conflict swept through. At least five humanitarian workers were killed.

Thousands of the Eritrean refugees fled to the capital, Addis Ababa, and Mekele, but Ethiopia’s government sparked further alarm last month when it said it was putting the “misinformed” refugees on buses and returning them to the camps. The U.N. refugee agency said it wasn’t informed in advance and said any forced return would be “absolutely unacceptable.”

The U.N. refugee chief, Filippo Grandi, last month said that “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. If confirmed, these actions would constitute a major violation of international law.”

No one knows how many thousands of people have been killed in the Tigray conflict that erupted on Nov. 4, and the U.N. and other humanitarian organizations still seek full and unimpeded access to a region that for weeks was starved of food, medicines and other supplies after transport links were cut.

Verifying conditions inside Tigray remains challenging as communications return and as Ethiopian authorities detain some journalists or deny their travel to the region.


Ethiopian general admits Eritrean troops entered Tigray
A top-ranking member of Ethiopia’s army confirmed that troops from neighbouring Eritrea entered the northern Tigray region during the conflict there, in a video seen by AFP on Wednesday.
Ethiopia’s federal government has long denied persistent claims that Eritrean troops were in Tigray, where Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military offensive against dissident regional leaders in November that left thousands dead.
But Major General Belay Seyoum, the head of the Ethiopian army’s northern division, went against those denials in a video dated from the end of December which emerged on social media Wednesday.
“An unwanted foreign force entered into our territory” during the fighting in Tigray, he said in the video, in which he spoke with residents of the regional capital Mekele.
Eritrea’s army “entered our territory by itself, this has to be made clear,” he added, without specifying when the soldiers crossed the border, where they went, or whether they were still in Ethiopia.
“The main mission of the Ethiopia Defense Force is safeguarding the territorial integrity of Ethiopia,” he said.
“My conscience doesn’t allow me to ask the Eritrean army to help us. We can solve our problem by ourselves.” In December the US State Department said it was “aware of credible reports of Eritrean military involvement in Tigray,” and called for the troops to be withdrawn.
Ethiopia’s ambassador to the US Fitsum Arega denied the claim, tweeting: “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth!”
Tigray residents also told AFP that Eritrean troops were in the region, accusing them of various abuses and looting. Prime Minister Abiy reached a historic peace agreement with Eritrea shortly after taking office in 2018, winning him the 2019 Nobel Peace Price. Abiy’s ascension ended decades of federal political dominance by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) — sworn enemies of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki after a 1998-2000 war between the two countries.
The premier launched the military operation against Tigray’s TPLF leaders on November 4, claiming victory when federal forces captured Mekele later that month. Before the conflict began, Tigray was home to 96,000 Eritrean refugees who fled Afwerki’s regime in one of the world’s most authoritarian states. The UN is among those to have expressed fear the Eritrean refugees in Tigray could face reprisals from Eritrean troops — or even be forced to return to the country.
– Mosque damaged –
Also on Wednesday, the council representing Ethiopia’s Muslims condemned the partial destruction of one of Africa’s oldest mosques in the Tigray fighting. Qassim Mohammed Tajuddin, the secretary of the Ethiopia Islamic Affairs Supreme Council, said the al-Nejashi Mosque had been hit by artillery fire and its materials had been looted. He called on the government “to bring to justice speedily those entities that committed these shameful acts”.
Built in the 7th century, the mosque is considered one of the oldest Muslim burial sites. Muslims believe it houses the tomb of several of Prophet Mohammed’s disciples.