Ethiopia says Eritrea agrees to withdraw troops from Tigray

KHARTOUM, Sudan (AP) – The Prime Minister of Ethiopia said Friday that Eritrea has agreed to withdraw its forces from the Tigray region, where witnesses have described looting, murdering and raping civilians.

The statement from Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office comes after intense pressure from the United States and others to address the deadly crisis in Tigray.

Abiy’s statement after a visit to Eritrea said Ethiopian troops will take over surveillance of the border areas “with immediate effect”.

Abiy only acknowledged the presence of soldiers from Eritrea, long an enemy of the Tigray leaders who once dominated the Ethiopian government, in the past week.

The new statement does not say how many Eritrean soldiers have been in Ethiopia, although witnesses have estimated the thousands.

Eritrea said in a statement that Abiy and its president, Isaias Afwerki, spoke in depth about the “common strategic partnership and joint trajectory envisaged, the brutal military attacks unleashed over the past five months and the associated disinformation campaigns,” but it did not specifically mention Tigray. Eritrea’s statement added that “important lessons have been learned from temporary hurdles created by this reality, which will further strengthen the joint ventures of the two sides in the period ahead.”

In a tweet, Eritrea’s ambassador to Japan said that “starting today, # Eritrea / n Defense Forces units will hand over all posts within # Ethiopia’s borders that have been cleared by the Ethiopian Armed Forces.”

Abiy shocked the region in 2018 by making peace with Eritrea after a long border war in the Tigray region, an achievement for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But since the current Tigray conflict started in November, Abiy has been accused of collaborating with Eritrea to pursue the now fugitive Tigray leaders.

Abiy’s statement accuses the former Tigray leaders of starting the conflict by attacking Ethiopian forces and then involving Eritrea by firing missiles at Eritrea’s capital. But witnesses have claimed the involvement of Eritrean soldiers from the start of the fighting.

The US demanded weeks ago for Eritrean soldiers to leave Tigray immediately, and pressure has intensified in recent days when the Biden administration sent Senator Chris Coons to Ethiopia for hours of talks with Abiy almost a week ago.

No one knows how many thousands of people, especially civilians, died in the Tigray fighting. The region of about 6 million people is largely cut off from the world, and despite some progress in the delivery of aid, humanitarian workers have warned that the entry of food and other supplies is far from sufficient due to fears of starvation.

And only in recent days has the United Nations Human Rights Office said it has been allowed into the Tigray region with limited capacity to support investigations into alleged atrocities, including mass rape by Eritrean soldiers and others.

The UN refugee agency told reporters in Geneva that it had finally reached two refugee camps that had received about 20,000 people from nearby Eritrea and had been “completely destroyed”. It said only 9,000 of the refugees have been registered.

A spokeswoman for Abiy’s office did not immediately respond to questions about Friday’s statement, including why the Eritreans had not withdrawn after previous requests.