A US official and other diplomatic sources have backed accusations that Eritrean soldiers are fighting alongside Ethiopian troops to help Abiy Ahmed’s government in the war on the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), complicating an already dangerous conflict.
The claims made to Reuters, which interviewed several unidentified diplomats in the region and a US official, follow mounting allegations by Tigrayan leaders that Eritrea, long a rival of Ethiopia, had joined with Ethiopian forces against a common enemy despite denials from both nations.
According to some accounts, thousands of Eritrean troops have joined the conflict during the last month of fighting, while Tigrayan forces have admitted rocketing the Eritrean capital, Asmara.
While refugees crossing into Sudan have also made similar claims, confirmation has been complicated by the lack of access for outsiders, including media, and the cutting of communications to the region.
Earlier this month the regional president of Tigray, Debretsion Gebremichael, accused Eritrean forces of mass looting.
According to the report, evidence of Eritrean involvement cited in the US view of the month-long war includes satellite images, intercepted communications and anecdotal reports from the Tigray region.
“There doesn’t appear to be a doubt anymore. It’s being discussed by US officials on calls – that the Eritreans are in Tigray – but they aren’t saying it publicly,” the US government source, who has been privy to the internal calls, told Reuters.
The latest allegations follow an incident on Sunday when a UN security team attempting to visit a camp for those displaced in the fighting reportedly encountered uniformed Eritrean troops during an incident in which they were shot at and detained.
Troops suspected of being Eritrean have also allegedly been spotted in the regional capital Mekelle, said a resident and two diplomats in touch with the city’s inhabitants.
Some were reported to be in Eritrean uniforms, one of the diplomats said. Others wore Ethiopian uniforms, but spoke Tigrinya with an Eritrean accent and drove trucks without license plates, the resident told Reuters.
The US assessment creates a potential policy predicament as Washington views Ethiopia as a major ally in the volatile Horn of Africa but accuses Eritrea of severe rights abuses.
A senior diplomat from another country concurred, saying “thousands” of Eritrean soldiers were believed to be engaged.
The US state department did not confirm the US conclusions, although a spokesman said it would view any proven Eritrean involvement with great concern and that its embassy in Asmara was urging restraint to officials.
Contacted on Saturday, Eritrea’s foreign minister, Osman Saleh Mohammed, said: “We are not involved. It’s propaganda.”
Claims by all sides are near-impossible to verify because most communications to Tigray are down, and the government tightly controls access.
Abiy won a Nobel peace prize last year for making peace with Eritrea, but the presence of Eritrean troops on Ethiopian soil would alarm western allies. Ethiopia hosts the African Union, its security services work with western allies, and its troops serve in peacekeeping missions in South Sudan and Somalia.
Eritrea has for years faced accusations of large-scale rights abuses, including jailing opponents and forcing citizens into lengthy military or government service. It accuses western powers of smear campaigns and luring Eritreans abroad, which they deny.
Ethiopia-Eritrea ties were mostly icy under the TPLF-dominated government that ruled Ethiopia for nearly three decades in increasingly autocratic fashion before Abiy took office in 2018.
The TPLF claims to have killed and captured large numbers of Eritrean troops in the last month, but has provided no evidence.
It has fired rockets into Eritrea at least four times, the US state department says. Eritrean troops are believed to have entered Ethiopia in mid-November through three northern border towns: Zalambessa, Rama and Badme.
The diplomatic sources and the US government source did not have information on the numbers Washington believes have crossed, nor on their weapons or role in the war.
Ethiopian officials have accused the TPLF of manufacturing fake Eritrean uniforms to bolster their claims and increase pressure on the government to accept international mediation. The TPLF denies this.