The New York Times (NYT) on Monday cited testimony from numerous international aid workers, diplomats, U.N. officials, and Ethiopian refugees who said soldiers from Eritrea are fighting alongside Ethiopian government troops to subdue insurgents in the restless Tigray region of Ethiopia.
Tigrayan leaders have frequently accused Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of importing Eritrean troops to fight against them. Abiy denied these allegations and denounced them as propaganda from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
Abiy’s administration maintains the TPLF is using tales of Eritrean marauders to whip up anti-government sentiment among Tigrayans, who have a great deal of mutual animosity with the Eritreans, dating back to the Eritrean-Ethiopian War of the late 1990s.
The NYT’s sources, on the other hand, said Eritrean troops have indeed been sighted in the Tigray region and are working alongside government forces, as the TPLF claimed.
One group of refugees from Eritrea who migrated into northern Ethiopia years ago said they were horrified to see a force of Eritrean soldiers descend upon their camp to indulge in days of “plunder, punishment, and bloodshed,” after which they marched dozens of the refugees back into Eritrea.
Other sources for the report said Eritrean forces have attacked churches, beaten and tortured civilians, and looted so many goods from Ethiopian homes that the plunder is sold openly in the markets of Eritrea’s capital city, Asmara.
Dozens of Tigray militia fighters have reportedly been killed fighting Eritrean troops, whose conduct was described by witnesses as exceptionally brutal, including the theft of humanitarian aid and the deliberate destruction of civilian food and water supplies. The New York Times reported that literal patches of scorched earth could be seen from orbit after Eritrean attacks on some villages.
Other information about the Eritrean incursion is difficult to come by, since the Ethiopian government imposed a strict information blackout on the Tigray region when the civil war began. International observers believe a massive humanitarian disaster is shaping up in the blockaded conflict zone.
“How did we let a state that is hostile to our country come in, cross the border and brutalize our own people? This is an epic humiliation for Ethiopia’s pride as a sovereign state,” said an Ethiopian journalist quoted by the NYT.
Long-simmering tensions between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray erupted into a civil war in mid-November that is evidently still in progress, even though Abiy declared victory weeks ago, and there are constant calls for a cease-fire from other African powers and the international community.
The Tigray are one of Ethiopia’s numerous ethnic groups. They were disproportionately powerful in Ethiopian politics before Abiy’s election, and they interpreted his zeal for government reform and anti-corruption crusades as an effort to purge them from government. Ironically, the strongman leader of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki, is a former member of the TPLF — a leading force of resistance in against the dictatorship that once ruled Ethiopia and the land now known as Eritrea.
Isaias and Abiy signed an agreement to formally conclude the Eritrean-Ethiopian border conflict in 2018, and now apparently see themselves as allies against the TPLF. The United States, which counts Ethiopia as a vital ally, has been quietly confident since early December that Eritrean forces were fighting on Abiy’s behalf, and has been pressuring Isaias to withdraw his troops.