Eritrea will pull its troops out of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said on Friday, suggesting a potential breakthrough in the drawn-out conflict that has seen atrocities committed against civilians.
Abiy faces mounting pressure to end fighting in which both Eritrean and Ethiopian troops have been accused of abuses, including mass killings and rapes.
Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, sent troops into Tigray on 4 November, blaming the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), for attacks on army camps.
For months both Addis Ababa and Asmara denied that Eritrean troops were active in Tigray, contradicting accounts from residents, aid workers, diplomats and even some Ethiopian civilian and military officials.
Abiy finally admitted Eritrea’s role before parliament earlier this week, flying to Asmara on Thursday to meet Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki.
During that visit “the government of Eritrea has agreed to withdraw its forces out of the Ethiopian border,” Abiy said in a statement posted to his Twitter account Friday.
On Discussions with President Isaias Afwerki pic.twitter.com/xN50NmKdob
– Abiy Ahmed Ali 🇪🇹 (@AbiyAhmedAli) March 26, 2021
“The Ethiopian National Defense Force will take over guarding the border areas effective immediately.”
Eritrean information minister Yemane Gebremeskel did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
Tens of thousands dead over 20 years
Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a border war beginning in 1998 that left tens of thousands dead and resulted in a two-decade stalemate.
Abiy won his Nobel for initiating a surprise rapprochement with Isaias after taking office in 2018, but Eritrea and the TPLF remained bitter enemies.
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In his speech to parliament on Tuesday, Abiy said the “Eritrean people and government did a lasting favour to our soldiers” during the conflict in Tigray.
His statement on Friday noted that the TPLF fired rockets at Asmara multiple times, “thereby provoking the Eritrean government to cross Ethiopian borders and prevent further attacks and maintain its national security”.
Abiy has acknowledged that Eritrean troops took over areas along the border, including trenches dug during the border war, after they were abandoned by Ethiopian soldiers.
Rights groups and Tigrayan residents have described a much deeper Eritrean presence.