Bloomberg: EU Accuses Eritrean Forces of Fueling Conflict in Ethiopia

Published by Bloomberg

The European Union accused Eritrean troops of fueling the months-long conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region and echoed a U.S. call for their withdrawal.

The presence of Eritrean forces is “exacerbating ethnic violence” in Tigray, the EU said in a statement Monday. Eritrea rejects the accusation and said the EU statement was “appalling,” according to comments posted by Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel on Twitter on Tuesday.

“The EU statement laments the ‘exacerbation of ethnic violence’ while conveniently forgetting the toxic policy of institutionalized ethnicity and polarization that the now defunct Tigray People’s Liberation Front clique pursued for decades,” Yemane said.

The U.S. said last month there were “credible reports” of Eritrean involvement in the violence in Tigray, which began on Nov. 4 when Ethiopian federal troops declared war on forces loyal to the dissident TPLF. The governments of both Ethiopia and Eritrea have previously denied Eritrean troops are involved in the fighting.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, didn’t respond to a requests for comment sent by text message.

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, who has been nominated as a special envoy to the region by EU member states, is scheduled to meet Abiy on Tuesday in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, to discuss the crisis.

In December, the EU suspended almost 90 million euros ($109 million) of budgetary aid to Ethiopia because of the conflict, which the United Nations estimates has killed thousands of people, displaced about 2.2 million others and destroyed 80% of the region’s health centers.

AP: US ‘directly’ presses Eritrea to withdraw forces from Tigray

Published by the Associated Press

The United States says it has directly “pressed senior levels” of Eritrea’s government to immediately withdraw its troops from neighboring Ethiopia, where witnesses have described them looting and hunting down civilians in the embattled Tigray region.

A State Department spokesperson in an email to The Associated Press on Thursday said Washington has conveyed “grave” concerns about credible reports of abuses. There were no details on how officials with Eritrea, one of the world’s most secretive countries, responded.

Eritrea has said little publicly about the conflict in Tigray as Ethiopian soldiers fight forces loyal to the now-fugitive Tigray regional leaders who once dominated Ethiopia’s government for nearly three decades. The Tigray leaders were marginalized after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018, and each side regards the other as illegitimate.

Ethiopia has repeatedly denied the presence of Eritrean soldiers, who some witnesses have estimated in the thousands. Now concerns are growing that the Eritrean forces refuse to leave. Eritrea remains an enemy of the fugitive Tigray leaders after a two-decade border war that ended under Abiy.

Eritrea’s information ministry on Thursday published a statement by the country’s embassy in the U.S. responding to an open letter this week by former U.S. ambassadors to Ethiopia that expressed concern about the Tigray conflict and Eritrea’s involvement.

“The allusion by these ambassadors to potential territorial war between Eritrea and Ethiopia can only be disingenuous in content and vicious in intent,” Eritrea’s statement said, expressing “profound dismay at their provocative and ill-intentioned swipe.”

The Tigray region remains largely cut off from the outside world and Ethiopia has blocked almost all journalists from entering, complicating efforts to verify assertions by the warring sides.

Meanwhile, humanitarian workers have had limited access to the estimated 6 million people in Tigray as food and other supplies run short and concerns about starvation grow.

The situation is “deteriorating every day, every minute,” the president of the Ethiopian Red Cross Society, Ato Abera Tola, told reporters on Thursday as Red Cross entities appealed for more financial support. “There is no area which is not affected by this conflict … the conflict is everywhere.”

The Ethiopia head of delegation for the International Committee for the Red Cross, Katia Sorin, said they still had not been able to reach rural areas of Tigray, a largely agricultural region. The ICRC is one of the few international organizations to maintain its operations in Tigray after fighting began.

“We’re helping, but it’s a drop in the ocean of need,” Sorin said.

Telegraph: Eritrea’s brutal shadow war in Ethiopia laid bare

Published by the Daily Telegraph

The extent of Eritrea’s involvement in Ethiopia’s brutal civil war has been exposed after an Ethiopian general was caught on camera admitting soldiers from the secretive gulag-state had been conscripted to fight in his country.

On Wednesday, a video was released on social media showing Major General Belay Seyoum, the head of the Ethiopian army’s northern division, admitting that “a foreign force entered the country” and that Eritrean troops had assisted them.

The video comes two months after Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a devastating military assault on the northern Tigray province in an attempt to oust the powerful regional government there.

Ethiopia and Eritrea have consistently denied reports that Eritrean troops had crossed the border to help Mr Abiy crush the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

When confronted by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in early December, Mr Abiy “guaranteed” that there were no Eritrean soldiers in Tigray.

Reacting to a report suggesting that Eritrean soldiers had been deployed to three Ethiopian towns by mid-November, Ethiopia’s ambassador to the US, Fitsum Arega, said: “Repeat a lie long enough, and it becomes the truth.”

But the new video corroborates extensive Telegraph reporting over the last two months which all points towards an Eritrean shadow war in Tigray and egregious abuses, including massacres and pillaging.

One witness said that Eritrean soldiers without insignia carried out a massacre of “dozens” of civilians in the town of Idaga Hamus, about 35 km south of the border, shortly after captured on November 21st.

“A lot of Eritrean soldiers died in that battle,” Beyene* claimed. “So they took revenge on the town’s civilian population, shooting at everyone they encountered and even killing a priest.”

Another witness said he saw summary executions of civilians after Eritrea soldiers captured the city of Adigrat, about 85km north of the Tigrayan capital Mekele.

“After Adigrat was captured, Eritrean soldiers gathered a group of young males in civilian attire and accused them of being TPLF fighters,” says Kiros.*

“They were taken towards the outskirts of the city, towards the road leading to Adwa (a city some 60km east of Adigrat). At least twelve of them were shot dead. I personally saw the bodies of other people in the city who had been killed by the same soldiers.”

The accounts come after the Telegraph published refugees’ testimonies of indiscriminate artillery fire raining down on the town of Humera from Eritrea’s border a few miles away.

“I saw one lady. She was lying on the ground. She was dead,” a refugee called Yared said, describing how the woman’s two children lay beside her body on the outskirts of Humera.

“One was about seven years old, but he was also dead. They were killed by a bomb. The other one was a baby. He was trying to breastfeed from her.”

The militarised, totalitarian state of about 6m on Ethiopia’s northern border has been on a war footing since the country won its independence from Ethiopia in 1993.

Hundreds of thousands of Eritreans have fled the country’s horrendous military conscription, which often keeps people working in forced labour for decades.

About 100,000 Eritrean refugees were in Tigray at the onset of the war, many of them draft dodgers.

There are widespread reports of Eritrean soldiers raiding these camps, torturing refugees and deporting them back to Eritrea.

The general’s comments have since been echoed by the Mekele’s interim mayor Ataklti Haileselassie.

Appointed shortly after the Ethiopian army’s capture of the Tigrayan regional capital, Mr Ataklti also publicly acknowledged Eritrean troops’ presence on Ethiopian soil.

“But we have been reassured that [the federal government] was working to have them withdraw in the near future,” Mr Ataklti said at a televised community gathering in Mekele which took place shortly after the General’s address.

Eritrea’s dictator Isaias Afewerki has long had a vested interest in seeing the TPLF ousted.

Before Mr Abiy was appointed as Ethiopia’s prime minister in 2018, TPLF officials dominated the government.

In 1998, Eritrea fell out with the then TPLF-led government over disputed territory on Eritrea and Tigray’s border.

A horrific war was waged between the two countries until 2000, killing an estimated 70,000.

Although the military conflict ended in 2000, both states spent the next two decades on a war footing, with troops massed on the border and funding proxy elements to destabilise the other.

Since 2000, the TPLF-led Ethiopian government largely succeeded in getting much of the world to establish warm diplomatic ties with Addis Ababa and isolating Eritrea internationally as a pariah state.

Eritrea was left with little leverage or diplomatic clout when it was slapped with sanctions and an arms embargo by the UN in 2009, for allegedly supporting extremist groups in Somalia.

Mr Isaias spent years lashing out at Addis Ababa and the TPLF, who he blamed for Eritrea’s isolation.

In 2018, Mr Abiy extended an olive branch in 2018, restoring ties with Eritrea. The endeavour would win him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 and help bring the Eritrean dictator in from the cold. 

But analysts now think that this prize-winning peace deal was little more than a military pact designed to crush the TPLF once and for all. 

*Names have been changed to protect identities

WPF: Who Will Call Out Eritrea’s War Crimes in Tigray?

Published by the World Peace Foundation

Eritrea has deployed most of its army in Tigray region of Ethiopia. This is no secret. At minimum, 12 divisions have been fighting inside Tigray.

At first, the United States gave Eritrea a free pass, expressing “thanks to Eritrea for not being provoked” into retaliating after a TPLF rocket attack on Asmara. Later it admitted that Eritrea was a belligerent. The United Nations Secretary General repeated Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed’s assertion that Eritrean troops had not crossed the border. The Chairperson of the African Union has carefully said nothing on the issue.

It is lawful for a state to request the military assistance of another state. The involvement of Eritrea in Ethiopia isn’t illegal per se.

But there is mounting evidence that activities of Eritrean troops include perpetrating war crimes on a vast scale. Every report from the northern parts of Tigray speaks about Eritrean soldiers looting. They ransacked the town of Shire. They shelled Humera close to the Sudanese border. They systematically dismantled the university and pharmaceutical factory in Adigrat. They stole cars, generators, and high value goods. Now we hear that they are combing ordinary houses in towns and villages, taking such basic items as furniture, doors, and jerrycans. Eritreans are said to have emptied food stores and looted cattle, sheep and goats.

Catholic priests in Eritrea were horrified by the looted items coming into Eritrea from Tigray and admonished anyone buying them. Despite the information blackout, journalists have pieced together enough information on these actions.

International criminal law prohibits a belligerent from removing, destroying or rendering useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population. The fast-approaching humanitarian crisis with at least 2 million displaced is due not only to fighting but to starvation crimes such as these.

Eritrean troops overran and emptied four refugee camps where Eritreans who had escaped their country had been living, until last month under the protection of the Ethiopian government. That’s another violation of international law.

As the weeks pass, it is becoming ever clearer that President Isseyas Afewerki has long planned this war with the intention of annihilating the TPLF and reducing Tigray to a condition of complete incapacity. His strategy is to say nothing and make a fait accompli on the assumption that the world will, in due course, come to live with it.

If anyone should doubt Isseyas’s intent, they should reflect on the way in which he has dealt with domestic opposition. In September 2001, while international attention was consumed by the al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington DC, he arrested eleven high-ranking colleagues, heroes of the liberation war, who had called for democratization, and ten journalists. They have never been seen since. After PM Abiy Ahmed visited Asmara in 2018 to end the long-dormant peace process between the two countries, Eritrea did not liberalize or demobilize its army. Nothing was said about political prisoners. Eritreans complained that nothing changed for them. For Pres. Isseyas, it wasn’t peace—it was a new opportunity to consolidate despotism.

Who will call out Eritrea’s role in the destruction of Tigray?

Guardian: ‘Slaughtered like chickens’: Eritrea heavily involved in Tigray conflict, say eyewitnesses

Published by the Guardian

In early December, Ethiopian state television broadcast something unexpected: a fiery exchange between civilians in Shire, in the northern Tigray region, and Ethiopian soldiers, who had recently arrived in the area.

To the surprise of viewers used to wartime propaganda, the Tigrayan elders spoke in vivid detail of the horrors that had befallen the town since the outbreak of war between the federal government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the region’s longstanding ruling party, which was ousted from the state capital of Mekelle in late November.

Residents had been “slaughtered like chicken”, the elders said, their corpses abandoned to be “eaten by hyenas”. They also spoke of rampant looting and vandalism: “All government assets have 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. “You need to solve this problem immediately,” said an elder addressing the generals and newly appointed Tigray president, Mulu Nega. “How can institutions that should serve the government of the day be allowed to be destroyed and looted by hooligans who do not have Ethiopian values in them?”

Thousands are thought to have been killed, civilians among them, and nearly 50,000 people have fled to Sudan since Ethiopia’s Tigray war began on 4 November. Pitched battles involving tanks and fighter jets – as well as militia from Amhara, which borders Tigray to the south – have flattened villages and emptied towns.

But according to eyewitnesses, aid workers and diplomats, the fighting has also involved many thousands of soldiers from neighbouring Eritrea, suggesting that what the Ethiopian government calls a “law enforcement operation” bears the hallmarks of a regional conflict.

Abiy and Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afwerki, share a common enemy in the TPLF, which dominated 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 an estimated 100,000 lives.

Earlier this month the former president of Tigray, Debretsion Gebremichael, accused Eritrean forces of mass looting. Before that he alleged Tigrayan forces were fending off Eritrean divisions on several fronts. The TPLF has claimed responsibility for one of three missile strikes on Eritrea since the war began, arguing it had acted in self-defence since the airport in Asmara, the capital, which was hit by at least two rockets in the strike, had been used to launch attacks.

Refugees crossing into Sudan have also made similar claims, telling reporters and aid workers that artillery shells that hit towns in western Tigray had come from Eritrea. But confirmation has been complicated by the lack of access for outsiders, including media, and the cutting off of communications to the region. Phone lines were restored in parts of Tigray this month, but there is still no internet.

Abiy has denied all allegations, and told the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, on 9 December that he could guarantee no Eritrean troops had entered Ethiopian territory.

However, his government does acknowledge that Ethiopian troops who escaped to Eritrea at the start of the war were aided by Eritreans who fed, clothed and armed them before they returned to the fight in Tigray.

“The Eritrean people are not only our brothers,” Abiy told parliament last month. “They have also shown us practically that they are friends who stood by our side on a tough day.”

But diplomatic sources have backed accusations that Eritrean soldiers have been actively involved in combat inside Tigray. Reuters, which interviewed several unidentified diplomats in the region and a US official, revealed earlier this month that the US government believed Eritrean soldiers had crossed into Ethiopian territory in mid-November via 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 have previously praised Eritrea for its “restraint”. “We are aware of credible reports of Eritrean military involvement in Tigray and view this as a grave development,” said the spokesperson. “We urge that any such troops be withdrawn immediately.”

“In the lingo of the state department that means they have intercepts, satellites and maybe even human intelligence as well,” a top EU diplomat in the region told the Guardian. “From everything we’ve been told it is incontrovertible they [Eritrean troops] are involved. It’s absolutely clear.”

Mesfin Hagos, a former Eritrean defence minister turned opposition figure, said in an article for online publication African Arguments, that Isaias had deployed four mechanised divisions, seven infantry divisions and a commando brigade, citing sources in the defence ministry among others.

Wallelegn, a Tigrayan working in Shire when the war began who later escaped to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, told the Guardian that the “Eritreans were really leading the Ethiopian forces in the area”.

“Their uniform is different and they are relatively old and skinny compared with the Ethiopian defence forces,” he said. “In the early days of their arrival to Shire they were looting, randomly shooting, mainly youngsters, and burning factories.”

He added: “At first the Ethiopian forces were emotional, and were not doing much to stop the attacks. But later on they started to take charge [and impose order].”

Tigray is also home to around 100,000 refugees from Eritrea, many of whom have fled indefinite national service and military conscription. When the war began they were caught in the middle and cut off from relief supplies.

A humanitarian worker in Shire told the Guardian that many refugees in Hitsats camp fled as soon as troops from Eritrea arrived in the vicinity on 19 November. According to the source, the approaching “north 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 they had received similar allegations, including of the killing of three security guards employed by the UN at Hitsats camp who tried to prevent the abduction of refugees, and the forced conscription of refugees to fight alongside the Eritrean army.

On 11 December, the head of the UN refugee agency said it had received an “overwhelming” number of reports of Eritrean refugees in Tigray being killed, abducted or forcibly returned to Eritrea over the past month. That same day Ethiopian authorities started putting Eritrean refugees in Addis Ababa on buses and returning them to Tigray against their will. The Ethiopian government said it was “safely returning” refugees to camps where there would be access to “service delivery systems” in order 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 on the hunt for individuals. “They were searching name-by-name and home-to-home. Their main target seems to be opposition members,” said the refugee, who asked for anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Eritrean state television, the only broadcast media in the country, has made no mention of the conflict in Ethiopia since it began, Eritreans living in Asmara say. President Isaias has not uttered a word in public in response to the missiles fired at Asmara last month.

Nor has his minister of information, Yemane Gebremeskel, whose office building narrowly escaped a rocket strike on 13 November. Eritrea’s foreign minister, Osman Saleh Mohammed, acknowledged the war but denied any involvement. “We are not part of the conflict,” he told Reuters last month.

Ethiopian officials, meanwhile, have accused the TPLF of manufacturing fake Eritrean uniforms to falsely implicate their neighbours, and insist that the conflict remains an exclusively internal affair.

Meron Estefanos, director of the Eritrean Initiative on Refugee Rights, notes 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 forcibly returned to Eritrea, estimates of several thousand abductees are improbable.

But as for the broader claims of Eritrean involvement, she said: “People inside Eritrea know exactly what is going on.

“I am sick and tired of the fact that, no matter how many Eritreans say that Eritrean troops are in Tigray, it is not confirmed until a foreign diplomat says it is.”

Guardian: Diplomats back claims Eritrean troops have joined Ethiopia conflict

Published by the Guardian

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.

DW: Once enemies, Ethiopia and Eritrea ally against Tigray

Published by Deutsche Welle

After more than three weeks of war, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has claimed victory in his military campaign against Tigray’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The fierce fighting there has left thousands of civilians and security forces dead, according to the International Crisis Group. More than 40,000 people have reportedly fled the conflict area, mostly to Sudan. With Abiy resisting calls for dialogue, fears are growing that Ethiopia’s internal conflict could spread beyond its borders.

Read moreEthiopia: A timeline of the Tigray crisis

One country is already more involved in the crisis than any other. “[Eritrean President] Isaias Afwerki has been in this war from day one,” Kjetil Tronvoll, research director of peace and conflict studies at Norway’s Bjorknes University College and a longtime Ethiopia observer, told DW.

Ethiopia and its northern neighbor Eritrea have a long and troubled history of conflict. But today, Eritrea’s Isaias and Ethiopia’s Abiy stand together in the fight against the TPLF.

Old enemies, old friends

“The Eritrean regime has seen the TPLF as enemy for a long time, which is very ironic,” journalist and Eritrea expert Michela Wrong told DW.

Until the early 1990s, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), a secessionist movement which Isaias co-founded, and the TPLF were allies in the struggle against Ethiopia’s military government. That government was overthrown in 1991, and two years later Eritrea gained independence. The TPLF, meanwhile, became the leading force in the ruling coalition that dominated Ethiopian politics for nearly three decades before Abiy came to power in 2018.

Read moreWho is Tigray’s leader Debretsion Gebremichael?

“It was supposed to be brotherly regimes that had fought together and were going to be good neighbors,” Wrong said.

But in 1998, the two countries went to war over territorial, economic and political disputes. Tens of thousands of people died.

“It was a bitter conflict, and ever since then the two regimes have hated each other,” said Wrong.

After a peace agreement in 2000, Eritrea and Ethiopia remained in a state of armed standoff for nearly 18 years, which ended after Abiy, from the Oromo Democratic Party, became prime minister.

Together against Tigray

“Isaias had rejected all peace negotiations,” said Tronvoll. “But when Abiy started to dismiss Tigrayan high officials in early June 2018, Isaias was happy to engage because it was game over for TPLF.”

In Tronvoll’s view, Isaias saw reconciliation with Ethiopia under Abiy’s leadership as “just a continuation of the war against TPLF.”

William Davison, a senior analyst for Ethiopia at the International Crisis Group, stressed that the relationship between Eritrea and Tigray is still bad, and that has ramifications for Ethiopian-Eritrean ties to this day. 

“Tigray and the TPLF leadership are seen as the main obstacle to improve relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea from the perspective of the leadership in those countries, and also in their vision the Tigrayan leadership is seen as a threat to broader regional stability,” he said.

Ethiopia needs Eritrea ‘to further marginalize the TPLF’

Davison explained that there is an advantage to Ethiopia allying with its neighbor in the crisis. “Tigray has a long border with Eritrea, so to assist the Ethiopian federal government campaign to remove Tigray’s government it made sense to use Eritrea at least for logistical support,” he said.

In the long run, Abiy and Isaias have the same objective, which motivates them to work together after years of conflict between their countries, said Tronvoll. “Abiy needs Isaias’ backing to further marginalize the TPLF from power,” he added.

Read moreEthiopia: ‘People in Tigray are terrified’

The TPLF does not recognize Abiy, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year for his reconciliation efforts with Eritrea.

Eritrea is willing to offer its own soldiers as “cannon fodder” to defeat the Tigrayan forces in the war, Tronvoll said.

“A big share of the troops used and sacrificed on the northern front are Eritrean soldiers, many of them underage,” he explained. “They are 14, 15 or 16 years old and are used as a first human wave, storming the entrenched position of Tigrayan defense forces and are killed in [the] hundreds, thousands. The second wave might manage to reach the fences.”

More than allies?

But can this new alliance also be considered a new friendship? Tronvoll is skeptical. “This is Ethiopia: In the past there have always been regional elites who were fighting each other and allying [with] each other in order to gain the upper hand,” he said. “The whole mentality of warfare, conflict and political alliances is deeply rooted historically. And hence you can explain why they shift so rapidly from friends to enemies and enemies to friends.”

As Wrong put it: “My enemy’s enemy is my friend. I think there is a sense of that happening here.”

“They are both regimes that felt they have a problem with the TPLF,” she added.

Wrong does not believe the conflict in Tigray will be resolved anytime soon. In her view, the new relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea is simply a “temporary alliance” with a common goal.

Guardian: Fears of regional conflict in Horn of Africa after rocket attacks on Eritrea

Published by the Guardian

Risks of the increasingly bloody war in northern Ethiopia turning into a chaotic regional conflict rose sharply this weekend after rocket strikes on the airport in neighbouring Eritrea’s capital, Asmara.

Multiple rockets struck Asmara on Saturday night, diplomats and informed regional observers said, though communication restrictions in Tigray and Eritrea made the reports difficult to verify.

One source in Asmara said the missiles missed the airport, with one landing not far from the information ministry building. The city has since suffered widespread power cuts.

Debretsion Gebremichael, the leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the restive region’s ruling party, said his forces had fired three missiles and claimed Asmara’s airport was a “legitimate target” because it was being used by Ethiopian forces.

“As long as troops are here fighting, we will take any legitimate military target and we will fire,” he said. “We will fight them on all fronts with whatever means we have.”

Gebremichael also accused Eritrea of sending troops into the Tigray region and denied reports that Tigray’s forces had entered Eritrea.

Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, launched military operations in Tigray 11 days ago after he accused local authorities of attacking a military camp in the region and attempting to loot military assets. The TPLF denies the charge and has accused the prime minister of concocting the story to justify deploying the offensive.

Since then, airstrikes and ground combat between government forces and the TPLF have killed hundreds, sent tens of thousands of refugees pouring into Sudan, and raised international concern over the willingness of Abiy, who won a Nobel peace prize last year, to risk a lengthy civil war against well-armed, experienced forces in the region.

On Sunday the office of Abiy said the war in Tigray region was “irreversible” and aimed at “enforcing the rule of law”.

“With unwavering commitment we will see this project through to the end … As a sovereign nation, Ethiopia reaffirms its capability and resolve to manage … its own rule of law operation without any external intervention,” the statement read.

The missile attack on Saturday and Abiy’s rejection of calls for a ceasefire and negotiations from the United Nations secretary general, the US, European powers, the pope and others have concerned many observers. “This is now an internationalised conflict,” said Martin Plaut, an expert on Eritrea at the University of London.

There have been unconfirmed reports of Ethiopian troops launching attacks into Tigray from Eritrean territory, a call-up of retired Eritrean senior officers, troop movements towards the southern border and a conscription drive by Eritrea’s authorities.

Relations between the Tigrayan leadership and Isaias Afwerki, who has ruled Eritrea with an iron fist for more than 30 years, are poor.

The war has the potential to spiral into a broader conflict involving not just Ethiopia and Eritrea, but powers across the Horn of Africa and beyond. Regional tensions are high, sharpened by Ethiopia’s mega-dam project, which both Sudan and Egypt fear could reduce their share of the Nile waters.

The Blue Nile, the river’s main tributary, accounts for 80% of the river’s volume, and originates in Ethiopia’s highlands before merging with the White Nile at the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. Ethiopia says its dam would have no negative impact on Egypt or Sudan, and argues it is vital for its development.

Egypt and Sudan launched joint military exercises over the weekend, the first joint combat training held since Omar al-Bashir’s authoritarian rule in Khartoum ended in a popular uprising last year.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Turkey have all been battling for influence in east Africa in recent years. “The fear is that this will be played out like Libya. The longer the war continues, the more likely it becomes that it will draw in rival Gulf powers. For the moment all you can see are possibilities, but if observers can see them then you can be sure that actors on the ground can see them too,” said Plaut.

Between 10,000 and 25,000 refugees fleeing the conflict have crossed into Sudan from Tigray. Many of the refugees are fleeing a thrust by Ethiopian forces into the west of Tigray, which is aimed in part at cutting off the province from any potential supplies coming from Sudanese territory. The strategically located town of Humera on the border between Tigray, the neighbouring region of Amhara and Sudan has been the centre of bitter fighting, with atrocities reported by both sides.

“The situation is very bad at the moment,” Jens Heseman, of the UN refugee agency, said in Mamdayet town.

Al Jazeera: Eritrea, Tigray and Ethiopia’s brewing civil war

Published by Al Jazeera

Immediately after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced in the early hours of Wednesday the beginning of military operations against the northern Tigray state, fears emerged that a prolonged conflict could reverberate across the wider region and draw in outside forces.

At the heart of these concerns is Eritrea – Ethiopia’s northern neighbour bordering the Tigray region.

Addis Ababa’s military move came after months of feuding between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the party that dominated Ethiopia’s politics for nearly three decades until Abiy came to power in 2018.

Having accused the prime minister of trying to “sideline … and even criminisalise” the TPLF, the Tigray leaders in September held elections in defiance of a decision by the federal government to postpone all polls due to the coronavirus pandemic. With tension building up and each side trading barbs, TPLF leaders in recent months also accused their sworn enemy, Eritrea, of meddling in Ethiopia’s domestic affairs in an attempt to corner Tigray.

The mutual animosity between Eritrea’s longtime ruler Isaias Afwerki and the TPLF goes back decades – but it was not always like this. From the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), which Isaias co-founded, and the TPLF were brothers-in-arms in the long struggle against Ethiopia’s military government led by Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Mengistu was overthrown in May 1991, and two years later Eritrea gained independence in a referendum. The TPLF, meanwhile, went on to become the leading force in the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) governing coalition, with late Tigray leader Meles Zenawi becoming the country’s prime minister.

In 1998, Eritrea and Ethiopia, however, went to war over a complex territorial, economic and political dispute that left tens of thousands of people dead. Despite the Algiers peace agreement in December 2000 ending the neighbours’ border conflict, Ethiopia and Eritrea remained in a state of armed standoff for nearly 18 years.

This “cold war” seemingly ended after Abiy’s rapprochement with Isaias after assuming office in April 2018, replacing Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in the face of months of anti-government demonstrations.

After weeks of secretive negotiations within the EPRDF, Abiy is believed to have overcome opposition from the formerly dominant TPLF to win the chair of the multi-ethnic, four-party coalition, a position that made him by default Ethiopia’s prime minister.

In July 2018, a series of secretive and fast-paced diplomatic exchanges between Addis Ababa and Eritrea resulted in a breakthrough, with the longtime foes re-establishing diplomatic ties.

Martin Plaut, a longtime observer of politics in the Horn of Africa, says the opaque nature of the Ethiopia-Eritrea diplomatic thaw gradually fed into Ethiopia’s bitter domestic political divide.

“It is impossible to be certain of Eritrea’s role in Ethiopia’s domestic conflict. Since the first visits to each other’s capitals by the two leaders in July 2018 there has never been a press conference at which journalists could ask either Prime Minister Abiy or President Isaias what they hoped to achieve,” said Plaut, a former BBC Africa editor.

“Communiques have been bland and uninformative. However, it is clear that relations are today so close that it is inconceivable that the Ethiopian leader would have undertaken such a major operation, on Eritrea’s border, without clearing it with his opposite number,” he added.

While the administration of Isaias has publicly reiterated its deep-seated animosity to TPLF, Eritrea’s involvement – if any – in the current conflict is still unclear for now. Meanwhile, a telephone and internet communications blackout in Tigray has made it difficult to verify the situation in the state and the border areas, leading to speculation.

“There have been reports of intense conscription of young Eritreans and of troops’ movements inside Eritrea, close to the border with Tigray. Some commentators anticipated a coordinated operation against Tigray with Ethiopians attacking from the south and Eritreans from the north. So far this does not appear to have taken place,” said Plaut.

“An Eritrean offensive may yet go ahead, but the Tigrayans are well armed and President Isaias may be biding his time to see whether Prime Minister Abiy’s forces make progress before committing his own troops.”

Tsedale Lemma, editor-in-chief of the Addis Standard, an Ethiopian English-language publication that reports on domestic and foreign current affairs, said the opaqueness of the 2018 peace deal has fed into Tigrayan officials’ suspicions about the intentions of Abiy and Isaias.

She also cited “the lapse in judgement” from Abiy “to sideline TPLF from being a genuine part of the peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea from the get-go”.

“It should have been known to PM Abiy that for all his political differences with TPLF, peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea is practically impossible without the involvement and meaningful say of TPLF,” Tsedale said.

Quartz: Why Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki, the tactical authoritarian, might be president for life

Published by Quartz

There are few leaders as enigmatic as Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afwerki.

In my bookUnderstanding Eritrea: Inside Africa’s Most Repressive State, I profile the president who led the country as it fought for its freedom from Ethiopia for 30 years, only to then turn on his own people.

Eritrea has been independent since 1993 but has no constitution and no parliament. No budget has ever been published. Elections have never been held and Isaias’s opponents languish in jail.

The president is a brooding, taciturn figure, who has dominated Eritrean politics since the 1970s.

Isaias was born in the Aba Shi’aul district of the Eritrean capital, Asmara, in February 1942. The son of an employee of the state tobacco company, he attended the Prince Makonnen Secondary School. At the time Eritrea was an integral part of Ethiopia.

In 1965 he left to study engineering in Addis Ababa. In October the following year he abandoned his studies and joined the Eritrean Liberation Front in the Sudan, which was fighting for Eritrea’s independence. No sooner was he a member of the front than he began plotting against its leaders.

He declared that the organization was dominated by Muslims and participated in a series of splits that created the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front in 1974-75.

Isaias has effectively led the party since its inception.

In May 1991 his fighters marched into Asmara, finally ending the 30-year war of independence. Isaias continues to lead both the country and his party, which changed its name to the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice in February 1994.

Living without freedom

Eritrea is a nation living without freedom. It is “the country that’s never had an election” and is today among the most repressive states in Africa. The regime’s human rights abuses are well documented.

Since Isaias rules without reference to a constitution or parliament, and without an independent judiciary, one can only conclude that these abuses are instituted at his insistence. The president surrounds himself with a small coterie of military and party officials who do his bidding.

As the US State Department’s 2019 annual report stated: “Eritrea is a highly centralized, authoritarian regime under the control of president Isaias Afwerki.”

Isaias expects the same unquestioning discipline and obedience from the general population that he expected of his troops during the war of independence. Control is enforced through a system of indefinite national conscription, which all healthy citizens are required to undertake. This is meant to last 18 months, but can continue for 20 years and more. The UN has declared it a form of slavery.

Quite how this came about is something of a puzzle, even for some of Isaias’s once close associates. Bereket Habteselassie, drafter of Eritrea’s unimplemented constitution, says this in his book, Desecrators of the Sacred Trust: “A question that everybody asks—one for which there has been no clear and unequivocal answer thus far—is: How did Isaias succeed in convincing everybody to let him do as he pleased, whatever he wanted for all those years?”

Part of the answer lies in Isaias’s personality: an intelligent, secretive man, he has a highly developed sense of insecurity. In a leaked assessment from Ronald McMullen, the American ambassador to Asmara in 2008, the president was described as “paranoid”. At the time, Isaias believed that both Ethiopia and the US were attempting to kill him.

As a result he was reported to switch plates with subordinates, apparently to avoid being poisoned, and to sleep in different locations to foil a coup or assassination attempt.

The ambassador’s report points to another key to Isaias’s policies: the fact that he was trained in China at the time of Chairman Mao’s notorious cultural revolution, during which millions were killed. The American ambassador quotes the Chinese ambassador to Eritrea as saying “he learned all the wrong things”.

Ruthless authoritarian

When Isaias founded the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front he also established a secret, controlling “party within a party” – the Eritrean People’s Revolutionary Party.

He used this organization, sometimes referred to as the People’s Party, to ruthlessly crush his rivals, both on the left, and on the right. Eliminating challenges to his rule has been a constant ever since. Whether they were wounded liberation fighters who complained about their treatment soon after independence, or soldiers asking for pay, he has not hesitated to use force to end any signs of opposition.

This culminated in 2001 in the arrest and incarceration without trial of senior liberation front leaders and journalists, some of whom had been with the front for decades. Their “crime” was to question his handling of the disastrous border war with Ethiopia (1998-2000) and his failure to fulfill his promise to implement a democracy. Those who were rounded up have not been seen since.

Yet Isaias has not survived by brute force alone. Sections of the community still revere him as the leader who brought about independence. He is also a skilled regional tactician. Although he does not tolerate Islamist movements in his own country, Isaias did not hesitate to link up with Islamist groups in Somalia (including al-Shabaab) when it suited his aim to undermine neighboring Ethiopia, which was deeply involved in Somali affairs. This resulted in limited UN sanctions against Eritrean leaders in 2009, which were lifted nine years later.

Because of complex feuds going back to the 1970s, Isaias is bitterly opposed to the leadership of the neighboring Ethiopian province of Tigray. He welcomed the election of prime minister Abiy Ahmed in April 2018, which saw the end of Tigrayan dominance of Ethiopia.

This, in turn, allowed a settlement of the border dispute between the two countries. It also opened the way to a peace agreement between Isaias and Ahmed, signed in Saudi Arabia.

The peace agreement cemented relations between Eritrea, the Saudis, and the United Arab Emirates, both of which have bases in Eritrea from where they conduct their wars in Yemen and Libya. Ordinary Eritreans have seen few benefits from the agreement. Food and even water are scarce, electricity is intermittent and the land border with Ethiopia remains closed.

Isaias Afwerki has been at the helm of Eritrean politics since the 1970s. Despite growing opposition among Eritrea’s large and influential diaspora, there are few signs of an effective challenge to his rule.