The Eritrean army left a town in Tigray and remained present in two others on Sunday, residents of this region of northern Ethiopia said, the day after Washington announced an “ongoing withdrawal” of these soldiers accused of numerous abuses.
The army of Eritrea, a country bordering Tigray, entered the region in November 2020 to support Ethiopian federal forces fighting dissident regional authorities. This murderous conflict officially ended with an agreement signed on November 2 in Pretoria between the Ethiopian government and the rebels.
Eritrea has not participated in these discussions and the retention of its troops, accused of abuses against civilians during the conflict as well as after the Pretoria agreement, is considered a major obstacle to peace in the region. .
According to testimonies collected Sunday morning by AFP, the Eritrean forces were no longer present in the city of Aksoum.
“I don’t see any Eritrean soldiers right now in the town,” said a resident, saying their withdrawal began on Friday: “They left (…), carrying dozens of artillery pieces, cannons anti-aircraft and tanks”.
Movements of troops and equipment have also been observed in recent days in the towns of Shire and Adwa.
Three Shire residents said they had seen large convoys of soldiers leaving town since Friday afternoon. One of them claims to have counted “18 tanks and 22 artillery pieces”. Several buses and trucks carrying soldiers carried banners, one of which proclaimed: “Game over”.
However, soldiers were still visible on Sunday. “I saw Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers patrolling together,” said a resident.
In Adwa, located 85 kilometers east of Shire, “Eritrean forces are still present in significant numbers, although I have seen troops stationed in other parts of the town leaving in recent days”, said a resident.
– “Crucial” –
As access to Tigray is restricted, it is impossible to independently verify the situation on the ground. Neither the Tigrayan rebels nor the Ethiopian government responded to AFP’s requests.
After a telephone conversation with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Saturday hailed the “ongoing withdrawal of Eritrean troops from northern Ethiopia”.
He “welcomed this development, noting that it was crucial to ensuring lasting peace,” the State Department said in a statement.
Igad, an East African regional body that is involved in mediating the peace process, “welcomes all the steps taken to ensure the smooth implementation of the agreement that will lead to a permanent and lasting peace in Ethiopia”, said in a message to AFP his spokesperson Nuur Mohamud Sheekh.
The departure of Eritrean troops from Tigray has been demanded by the international community since the start of the war.
Their presence had been reported from the first weeks of the conflict, when Abiy Ahmed sent the army to dismiss the dissident regional authorities, from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
Asmara and Addis Ababa denied it for months, before Mr. Abiy admitted it at the end of March 2021.
– Accusations of massacres –
An autocratic state that gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993, Eritrea has been the sworn enemy of the TPLF since a bloody border war in 1998-2000 when this party ruled Ethiopia (1991-2018).
His troops were accused of looting, massacres and rapes during and after the conflict, notably in Aksoum or in the village of Dengolat.
If confirmed, this withdrawal constitutes a major step forward in the peace process launched on 2 November.
Since the agreement, the fighting has ceased, the delivery of humanitarian and medical aid is gradually resuming and the regional capital Mekele has been connected to the national electricity grid.
But the military component remains largely subject to the Eritrean presence.
The rebels announced on January 11 that they had begun to surrender their heavy weapons, saying they hoped “this will go a long way to speeding up the full implementation of the agreement” from Pretoria.
The signatories had indeed agreed that “the disarmament of heavy weapons will be done simultaneously with the withdrawal of foreign and non-federal forces”, with particular reference to Eritrea.
By early December, the Tigrayans had also withdrawn most of their fighters from the front lines, while keeping them in some places to avoid “atrocities” committed by “forces which are obstacles to peace”.
Once these threats have been removed, “we will do (a disengagement) 100%”, they assured.