Eritrean forces leave the historic city of Tigray, key to the peace deal
Eritrean forces have left the ancient city of Axum in Tigray but remain in two other towns in the war-stricken region of Ethiopia, locals said on Sunday, as the United States hailed the withdrawal seen as key to a historic peace deal.
The Eritrean military has moved across the border into Tigray to support federal government forces against dissident authorities in the region in a conflict that erupted in November 2020 and has since killed untold numbers of civilians and led to a desperate humanitarian crisis.
A peace deal between the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the TPLF signed in Pretoria, the capital of South Africa, in November last year has silenced the guns in Africa’s second most populous country.
But Eritrea, whose forces have been accused by the United States and rights groups of some of the conflict’s worst atrocities – including the massacre of hundreds of civilians in Aksum – was not party to the agreement.
On Sunday, eyewitnesses told AFP that Eritrean forces were no longer in the holy city, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its towering carved obelisks.
“I don’t see any Eritrean soldiers at the moment in the city,” one resident said. “They left… carrying dozens of artillery pieces, anti-aircraft guns and tanks,” he added.
Large movements of troops and armored vehicles have also been seen in recent days in the Tigrayan towns of Adwa and Shire, which lie on the same road from east to west as Aksum.
Three Shire residents said they saw large convoys of soldiers start leaving the town on Friday in buses and trucks, some carrying signs reading “Game Over”.
But local residents said some forces remained until Sunday.
“I saw Eritrean soldiers patrolling the town with members of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces,” said a Shire resident.
“Eritrean forces are still present in large numbers, although I saw Eritrean forces stationed in other parts of the city leave in previous days,” added a local woman in Adwa.
The United States and other countries in the West sought to pressure Eritrea to withdraw its forces, and Washington imposed sanctions targeting its armed forces as well as the political party of President Isaias Afwerki.
On Saturday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke of their “continued withdrawal” in a phone call with Abiy, who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize in part for his rapprochement with Eritrea.
Blinken described the withdrawal as an “important progress” in the peace deal.
“The Secretary welcomed this development, noting that it is key to ensuring sustainable peace in northern Ethiopia, and urged access for international human rights monitors,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
“It welcomes every action taken to ensure the smooth implementation of the agreement that will lead to lasting and sustainable peace in Ethiopia,” said Nur Mahmoud Sheikh, spokesman for the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in East Africa, one of the mediators of the peace process.
With access to Tigray restricted, it is impossible to independently verify the situation on the ground.
Under the Pretoria Agreement, the TPLF agreed to disarm the federal government and re-establish federal government authority in return for restoring access to Tigray, which was largely cut off from the outside world during the war and is still in dire need of food, medicine and fuel.
A later deal struck in Nairobi called for demilitarization along with the withdrawal of foreign and non-NDF forces, but there was no specific mention of Eritrea, one of the world’s most closed states whose regime is the TPLF. -the enemy.
The war broke out when Abiy accused the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which dominated government in Ethiopia for three decades until his rise, of attacking federal military installations in Tigray.
Abiy unleashed a major offensive against the TPLF, which at one point in late 2021 appeared poised to advance toward the capital, Addis Ababa, before withdrawing to Tigray, one of several major shifts on the battlefield.
Addis Ababa and Asmara denied for months any Eritrean involvement in the conflict, but Abiy admitted their presence in March.
The departure of Eritrean forces has been announced several times before but not verified.
The toll of the war remains unknown, although the US has said up to 500,000 people have died, while African Union envoy Olusegun Obasanjo told the Financial Times earlier this month that up to 600,000 have been killed.
The conflict – which has also displaced more than two million people and left millions in need of assistance – has been described by the International Crisis Group and Amnesty International as “one of the world’s deadliest”.