Eritrean forces have been leaving towns in the war-torn region of Tigray, locals told AFP, as the United States hailed a pullout seen as key to a landmark peace deal.
Fighting between federal troops and Tigray rebels erupted in northern Ethiopia in November 2020 and raged for two years before the two sides signed a peace deal in South Africa’s capital Pretoria on November 2, 2022.
Under the agreement, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) agreed to disarm and re-establish the authority of the federal government in return for the Ethiopian government reopening access to the war-torn region in dire need of food and aid.
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But the Pretoria agreement made no provision for the withdrawal of Eritrean troops, who fought on the side of the federal government and who were accused by the United States and human rights groups of some of the worst abuses in the bloody conflict.
The United States, along with the European Union, had sought to put pressure on Eritrea to remove its troops. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke on Saturday of their “ongoing withdrawal” in a telephone call with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
Blinken called the withdrawal “significant progress” in the peace agreement.
“The Secretary welcomed this development, noting that it was key to securing a sustainable peace in northern Ethiopia, and urged access for international human rights monitors,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
On the ground in Tigray, locals told AFP that convoys of Eritrean troops have been leaving the towns of Shire and Adwa, although some soldiers remained.
“I saw some Eritrean forces leaving Shire towards the northeast. I don’t know if they’re making a full retreat,” said one resident, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Another local confirmed having seen a convoy of trucks, buses, tanks and artillery pieces rolling out of town.
However, he said some Eritrean soldiers were still “walking the streets and around the markets” on Saturday.
“People are waiting to find out if the Eritrean forces are really withdrawing,” one resident in Adwa told AFP on Saturday. “There have already been announcements of Eritrean soldiers leaving, only for them to come back later from other directions.”
With access to Tigray limited, it is impossible to independently verify the situation on the ground.
The withdrawal has not yet been confirmed by peace deal signatories or the agreement’s observation mission.
War toll unknown
The war broke out in November 2020 when the TPLF, which had held power in Ethiopia until the Abiy’s rise, attacked Ethiopian federal military facilities in Tigray.
Abiy, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize in part for reconciling with Eritrea, unleashed a major offensive against the TPLF, which at one point had appeared close to advancing on the capital Addis Ababa.
Situated on the border with Tigray, Eritrea sent in troops at the start of the conflict to support Ethiopian forces.
Addis Ababa and Asmara denied for months any Eritrean involvement in the conflict but Abiy later admitted their presence in March 2021.
The departure of Eritrean troops has been announced several times before but never verified.
The exact toll of the war, which has largely come to an end, remains unknown. The International Crisis Group think tank and Amnesty International have called it “one of the deadliest in the world”.
The conflict displaced more than two million people and left millions more in need of humanitarian aid.