Ethiopia says Eritrea agrees to withdraw troops from Tigray

KHARTOUM, Sudan (AP) — Ethiopia’s prime minister said Friday that Eritrea has agreed to withdraw its forces from the Tigray region, where witnesses have described them looting, killing and raping civilians.

The statement by 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 that Ethiopian forces will take over guarding the border areas “effective immediately.”

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

The new statement doesn’t say how many Eritrean soldiers have been in Ethiopia, though witnesses have estimated well in the thousands.

Eritrea in a statement said Abiy and its president, Isaias Afwerki, discussed in depth the “common strategic partnership and envisioned joint trajectory, the vicious military attacks unleashed in the past five months, and attendant disinformation campaigns” but it did not specifically mention Tigray. Eritrea’s statement added that “important lessons have been gleaned from temporary hurdles precipitated by this reality that will further bolster the joint undertakings by the two sides in the period ahead.”

In a tweet, Eritrea’s ambassador to Japan said that “as of today #Eritrea/n Defense Forces units shall hand over all posts within the borders of #Ethiopia which were vacated by the Ethiopian Defense 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 began in November, Abiy has been accused of teaming up 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, then drawing Eritrea into the fighting by firing rockets into Eritrea’s capital. But witnesses have alleged the involvement of Eritrean soldiers from the start of the fighting.

The U.S. weeks ago demanded that Eritrean soldiers leave Tigray immediately, and pressure increased in recent days with the Biden administration dispatching Sen. Chris Coons to Ethiopia nearly a week ago for hours of talks with Abiy.

No one knows how many thousands of people, especially civilians, have been killed in the Tigray fighting. The region of some 6 million people has been largely cut off from the world, and despite some progress in aid delivery, humanitarian workers have warned that food and other supplies coming in are far from enough amid fears of starvation.

And only in recent days has the United Nations human rights office said it’s been allowed into the Tigray region in a limited capacity to support investigations into alleged atrocities including mass rapes by Eritrean soldiers and others.

The U.N. refugee agency told reporters in Geneva that it had finally reached two refugee camps that had hosted some 20,000 people from nearby Eritrea and found them “completely destroyed.” It said just 9,000 of the refugees have been accounted for.

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

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