For months, both sides denied Eritreans were involved, contradicting testimony from residents, rights groups, aid workers, and diplomats.
Eritrea has acknowledged for the first time its forces are taking part in the months-long war in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region and promised to pull them out in the face of mounting international pressure.
The explicit admission of Eritrea’s role in the fighting came in a letter posted online late on Friday by the country’s information minister, written by its ambassador to the United Nations and addressed to the Security Council.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray in November last year to disarm and detain leaders of the region’s once-dominant political party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
For months, the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments denied Eritreans were involved, contradicting testimony from residents, rights groups, aid workers, diplomats and even some Ethiopian civilian and military officials. Tigray residents have repeatedly accused Eritrean forces of mass rape and massacres, including in the towns of Axum and Dengolat.
Abiy finally acknowledged the Eritreans’ presence in March while speaking to MPs, and promised soon after that they would leave.
Friday’s letter from Eritrea said, with the TPLF “largely thwarted”, Asmara and Addis Ababa “have agreed – at the highest levels – to embark on the withdrawal of the Eritrean forces and the simultaneous redeployment of Ethiopian contingents along the international boundary”.
It came a day after UN aid chief Mark Lowcock told the Security Council that despite Abiy’s earlier promise, there had been no evidence of a withdrawal of Eritrean troops from the region.
He also said aid workers “continue to report new atrocities which they say are being committed by Eritrean Defence Forces”.
‘Increasing international presure’
William Davison, the International Crisis Group’s (ICG) senior analyst for Ethiopia, told Al Jazeera that Eritrea’s admission came as in recent weeks increasing proof made it harder to continue denying the presence of its forces in Tigray.
“Obviously, with that mounting evidence [came] increasing international pressure,” he said.
“Ethiopia’s government admitted the Eritrean presence and said they would withdraw and Eritrea said nothing; that did lead to suspicions that there was a difference between the two governments who are allies in this conflict in Tigray, so perhaps Eritrea’s government also wanted to dispel the idea that there was any major split between Addis Ababa and Asmara.”
Looking ahead, Davison said it was a matter of the international community to monitor “very carefully” whether the Eritrean troops will indeed leave Tigray.
“[That is] because, of course, up until now, the two governments have completely denied Eritrea’s presence. So therefore, there’s no particular reason to take them at their word that this withdrawal commitment will be implemented.”
Eritrea and Ethiopia blame the conflict on TPLF-orchestrated attacks on federal army camps in early November and describe it as a campaign to restore law and order. he TPLF says Abiy’s government and its longtime foe Eritrea launched a “coordinated attack” against it.
Abiy declared victory in Tigray in late November after federal forces took the regional capital Mekelle, but the fighting has continued.
The conflict arrived in the middle of the harvest in Tigray and for months humanitarian access was greatly restricted, prompting fears of widespread starvation.
In his comments on Thursday, the UN’s Lowcock said he had received a report of 150 people dying of hunger in one area of southern Tigray, calling it “a sign of what lies ahead if more action is not taken”.
Ethiopian state media on Friday night aired a report denouncing the claim as “false” and “aimed at tarnishing the image of the country”.
© Al Jazeera, 2021