Eritrea’s Involvement in the War on Tigray

PM Ahmed Reinstated Relations With Eritrea Within Three Months In Office
  • April 2018: The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) nominated Abiy Ahmed to be the Prime Minister of Ethiopia.
  • July 2018: Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki and PM Ahmed signed a joint declaration formally ending the state of war between Ethiopia and Eritrea at a summit in Eritrea. 
  • Leaders across the world hailed PM Ahmed’s effort to end the Ethiopia-Eritrea border war, but it amounted to little. Ethiopia-Eritrea borders that opened briefly closed again.
  • This “peace” pact was not all transparent. No agreement was communicated to the public on how the two countries would demarcate the border, trade with each other, etc. As a result, critics have questioned whether the “peace” pact had other intentions.
Shared Enemy Brings The Two Leaders Closer
  • Even after the borders closed after signing the “peace” pact, PM Ahmed and President Isaias remained close, bonded by their shared hostility toward the rulers of the Tigray region, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
  • PM Ahmed viewed the TPLF as a challenge to his plans to consolidate power and dismantle Ethiopia’s current ethnic-based federal system. 
  • For Isaias, “it was a deeply personal feud — a story of grievances, bad blood and ideological disputes that stretched back to the 1970s, when Eritrea was fighting for independence from Ethiopia, and Isaias joined with the TPLF to fight an Ethiopian Marxist dictator. Those differences widened after 1991, when Eritrea became independent and the Tigrayans had come to power in Ethiopia.” – The New York Times, December 28, 2020
  • The feud worsened as a border war began with Ethiopia and Eritrea over the Badme territory on May 6, 1998. A conflict used by Isaias to justify the need for an obligatory national service, suspension of the constitution, prohibiting of free press, and the suppressing of any opposition in Eritrea.
Isaias Visits Ethiopian Military Sites, PM Ahmed Visits Sawa
  • Both leaders visited each other multiple times after signing the “peace” pact in July 2018. In 2020, the two leaders publicly shared military operational capabilities with each other.
  • July 2020: PM Ahmed visited the Eritrean military training center (Sawa) during a two-day visit to Eritrea.
  • October 14, 2020: PM Ahmed and Isaias visited the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Gibe-III hydropower plant, the Ethio-Engineering Group, which produces vehicles for the defense forces as well as for commercial use, and the Ethiopian Air Force.
  • October 31, 2020: days before the war started, the Eritrean Embassy in Ethiopia posted an editorial  piece in Tigrigna explicitly warning the TPLF that “Game Over means Game Over.”
Eritrea Joins The War On Tigray, PM Ahmed Denies Eritrean Involvement
  • PM Ahmed has consistently denied Eritrean military involvement in the war, mainly to convince the international community that this is all a local “law enforcement operation.
  • Multiple international and local sources have contradicted PM Ahmed’s claim that denies Eritrea’s involvement in the war, including foreign government officials, aid workers, refugees in Sudan, Ethiopian officials, and civilians in Tigray.
    • “[PM Ahmed] insists that he was forced to move his army quickly in Tigray after TPLF mutinied against his government. But in the early weeks of the fight, Ethiopian forces were aided by artillery fired by Eritrean forces from their side of the border, an American official said.” – The New York Times, December 28, 2020
    • December 10, 2020: The United States confirmed that Eritrean troops are active in Ethiopia’s Tigray region and urged Eritrean troops to be withdrawn immediately.
  • Multiple sources also indicate that Somali troops that have been sent to training camps in Eritrea since late 2018 may be fighting alongside Eritrean soldiers in Tigray.
Government Officials Admit To Eritrean Military Presence In Tigray
  • December 2020: An Ethiopian military official also admitted to Eritrean military presence on Ethiopia’s national TV, where he clearly states that “A Force that attacked the TPLF from Dansha (Ethiopia) met another force that came from Tokombia (Eritrea), after the latter controlled Shiraro and both forces marched to Shire [Tigrayan areas].”
  • January 4, 2021:  Ataklti Haileselassie, Interim Mayor of Mekelle city who was appointed by the Tigray regional state interim administration, admitted the presence and participation of Eritrean forces in the armed conflict in Tigray.
  • January 6, 2021:  Major Gen. Belay Seyoum openly admitted to Eritrea’s involvement in the war on Tigray but claims they invaded on their own accord – without an invitation. He blamed the TPLF for making the Ethiopian army vulnerable to foreign forces with the November 4th attack.
Eritrean Forces Commit War Crimes In Tigray
  • “According to interviews with two dozen aid workers, refugees, United Nations officials and diplomats — including a senior American official — Eritrean soldiers are fighting in Tigray, apparently in coordination with  PM Abiy’s forces, and face credible accusations of atrocities against civilians. Among their targets were refugees who had fled Eritrea and its harsh leader, President Isaias Afwerki.” – The New York Times, December 28, 2020
  • November 19, 2020: Eritrean soldiers invaded a refugee camp in Tigray that housed Eritrean refugees at Hitsats [a sprawling refugee camp of 25,000 people]. Scores of people were killed, including four Ethiopians employed by the International Rescue Committee and the Danish Refugee Council.
  • According to Refugees International, the Eritrean military has forced the repatriation of Eritrean refugees. There were over 96,000 Eritrean refugees in Tigray.
  • There is sufficient information to conclude that Eritrean forces are in Tigray and  evidence to believe that the Eritrean forces are committing war crimes.
  • Eritrean soldiers are reported to have looted markets, residences, aid supplies, universities, hospitals, and stolen vehicles. They have destroyed historical and religious places and set fire to fields filled with crops. There have also been reports of mass killing, rape, and torture. 
  • These accounts are supported by pictures, videos, and stories coming out of Tigray’s capital city of Mekelle where some communication has been restored and videos released from those who have escaped the war in Tigray.
  • There are also reports of people fleeing to the mountains or to Sudan to escape atrocities being committed by the Eritrean military.
What’s Next?
  • The Ethiopian government has failed to protect the civilians of Tigray from these crimes.
  • In fact,the Ethiopian government has not decided on how it would justify Eritrea’s involvement to Tigrayans or to the international community. The fact that their own government is willingly exposing them to war crimes in the hands of a foreign army means it does not have legitimacy to use the sovereignty argument to block international intervention.
  • We urge the international community to enforce the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ principle to force the Eritrean army out of Tigray and protect the people of Tigray.
  • We urge the international community to push for an independent investigation of the war crimes committed in Tigray.