Eritrea plunges back into Ethiopia’s Tigray war

By The Africa Report
Posted on Thursday, 22 September 2022 13:51

Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki and Ethiopia's Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed arrive for an inauguration ceremony marking the reopening of the Eritrean embassy in Addis Ababa
Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki and Ethiopia's Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed arrive for an inauguration ceremony marking the reopening of the Eritrean embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Eritrea has renewed its involvement in Ethiopia’s Tigray war, sending divisions across its southern border this week in what appears to be a major new offensive. Military and diplomatic sources tell The Africa Report that Eritrean forces are moving into strategic positions. This Eritrean ground offensive represents a serious escalation of the conflict.

The spokesperson for the Tigray rebels, Getachew Reda, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday that “Eritrean forces have launched [a] full-scale offensive in all fronts” across Tigray’s frontier with Eritrea.

Getachew added that Ethiopian troops, including commandos and regional Amhara forces, have been deployed alongside the Eritrean military.

All external foreign actors should respect Ethiopia’s territorial integrity and avoid fuelling the conflict.

Separately, a Western diplomat tells The Africa Report that Eritrean forces have opened attacks against Tigrayan positions in about seven areas. Another says thousands of federal Ethiopian troops have been airlifted to Eritrea in recent weeks, amid a ‘massing’ of thousands of Eritrean troops on Tigray’s northern border and the shelling of northern Tigrayan towns, including Adigrat and Shire.

Additionally, several sources tell The Africa Report that Eritrea has moved troops into the Afar region to the east of Tigray and is building its forces near the town of Berhale.

Military call-up

Last week, Eritrea issued a general mobilisation order calling up all military reservists under the age of 55. On Tuesday, Mike Hammer, the US special envoy for the Horn of Africa, said his country has been “tracking Eritrean troop movements across the border”.

“They are extremely concerning, and we condemn it,” Hammer said. “All external foreign actors should respect Ethiopia’s territorial integrity and avoid fuelling the conflict.”

The new Eritrean ground offensive represents a major escalation of the conflict in northern Ethiopia. It comes four weeks after hostilities renewed between Tigray and Ethiopia’s federal government on August 24, breaking a truce that had been in place since late March.

Eritrea’s involvement

Eritrean troops entered the Tigray conflict on the side of Ethiopia’s federal government when the war first began in November 2020. Eritrea’s autocratic leader, Isaias Afwerki, saw the conflict as a chance to wipe out the region’s Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which led Ethiopia in a border war against Eritrea in 1998 to 2000.

Before they were forced to withdraw from Tigray in June 2021, alongside Ethiopia’s federal military, Eritrean troops were accused of widespread human-rights abuses in Tigray including large-scale massacres and keeping Tigrayan women as sex slaves.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed denied the presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray for months, only admitting their involvement in the war in March 2021. Even today, some supporters of Abiy’s government in Addis Ababa dismiss reports of Eritrea’s involvement as “fake news”.

Human-rights violations

Last week, joint Eritrean and Ethiopian forces captured the northwestern Tigray town of Sheraro. Human-rights activists worry Eritrea forces may commit more violations if they are able to capture other urban centres.

“With a resumption of hostilities in northern Ethiopia, there is a very real risk of further civilian suffering and further atrocity crimes,” said Kaari Betty Murungi, the chair of the UN’s commission of human rights experts on Ethiopia on Monday, on the publication of her body’s report into abuses committed so far in the conflict.

The report said that Eritrean and Ethiopian government troops perpetrated acts of sexual violence on a “staggering scale” against Tigrayan women. It also accused Tigrayan fighters of committing massacres, rape and acts of sexual violence in the Amhara region.

“The international community should not turn a blind eye, and instead increase efforts to secure a cessation of hostilities and the restoration of humanitarian aid and services to Tigray,” Murungi said. “Failure to do so would be catastrophic for the Ethiopian people, and has wider implications for peace and stability in the region.”

Breakdown in relations

Under pressure from the West, which has suspended financial support to Ethiopia, Abiy has distanced himself from Isaias over the course of the last year. An analyst in Addis Ababa said the relationship between Abiy and Isaias was “basically broken” before the new fighting erupted.

However, humanitarian and diplomatic sources say that Ethiopian federal troops have not been able to make much progress battling Tigrayan forces to the south and west of Tigray in the last four weeks, leaving them potentially reliant on Eritrea’s military to make a breakthrough. “It’s a big blow for Abiy,” says one.

Much of the fighting so far has centred around the strategic town of Dedebit, as the Tigray forces attempt to recapture the west of the Tigray and secure access to Sudan, which would provide a pipeline through which they could bring in arms and other supplies.

“Abiy cannot afford for the TPLF to have access to this international border, and it doesn’t seem his forces are capable of fending them off without Eritrean assistance,” says the analyst in Addis Ababa.

“Now we have Eritreans coming from Dansha, Sheraro, Rama and Zalambesa,” says an aid worker, referring to a string of towns on the western and northern fronts. “The Tigrayans have been able to resist the offensives against them so far, but the big question is: will they be able to keep this resistance up?”

Horn of Africa kingmaker

As Eritrea’s head of state, Isaias has had a hand in many of the Horn of Africa conflicts over the past three decades, funding and providing refuge to rebel groups battling the governments of neighbouring states.

“He wants to be seen as the major actor in the region and for Abiy to be dependent on him,” says the analyst in Addis Ababa. “For this reason, it’s beneficial for him to have Ethiopia diplomatically and economically weakened by war.”

This point was echoed by Martin Plaut, the author of Understanding Eritrea. “Isaias is determined to be the kingmaker in the whole Horn of Africa: that has always been his objective,” Plaut says. “He wants the war to continue, for there never to be stability, in order to keep both his ally (Abiy) and the Tigrayans weak.”

‘Doomsday’ scenario

It is not clear how much military muscle Eritrea is still able to call on after its involvement in the early stages of the Tigray war. One rough estimate puts Eritrean losses between November 2020 and June 2021 at 30,000 dead and 70,000 injured.

An aid worker who travelled extensively across Tigray during that period reports seeing pregnant women and elderly men in Eritrean uniforms manning checkpoints.

The fresh fighting in Tigray and nearby parts of the Amhara region has triggered a flurry of diplomacy, led by the US. Yet the US mediation has not directly engaged Eritrea. As a result, Isaias could easily spoil any ceasefire talks, even if the Tigray forces and the federal government could be persuaded to sign a deal.

“The next two to three weeks will be decisive,” says the analyst in Addis Ababa, who worries about a ‘doomsday’ scenario of fresh rounds of mass killings by all sides in Tigray and nearby Amhara. “This is a real possibility.”

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