Eritrea will pull out its troops from Ethiopia's troubled Tigray region, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said Friday, a potential breakthrough in a drawn-out conflict that has seen atrocities carried out against civilians.
For months, the Eritrean and Ethiopian governments had repeatedly denied allegations that Eritrean forces were in Tigray and were committing grave human right violations, contradicting accounts from residents, aid workers, diplomats and even some Ethiopian civilian and military officials.
But on Tuesday, before lawmakers, Abiy admitted Eritrea’s role. And on Thursday, he flew to Asmara to meet with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki.
In a statement Friday morning, Abiy said, “In our March 26, 2021 discussion with President Isaias Afeworki, during my visit to Asmara, the government of Eritrea has agreed to withdraw its forces out of the Ethiopian border.”
The Ethiopian National Defence Forces will immediately replace the Eritrean army and protect the border areas, he added.
Abiy further said Ethiopia and Eritrea will continue to work together on bilateral relations and economic cooperation.
“We will continue to build good neighbourly relations with the two countries in the spirit of mutual trust and neighbourliness,” the statement said.
Eritrean information minister Yemane Gebremeskel did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, faces mounting pressure to end fighting in which both Eritrean and Ethiopian troops stand accused of abuses including mass killings and rapes.
Abiy sent troops into Tigray on November 4 after blaming the region's once-dominant ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), for attacks on army camps.
His statement Friday noted that the TPLF fired rockets on Asmara multiple times, “thereby provoking the Eritrean government to cross Ethiopian borders and prevent further attacks and maintain its national security.”
Yet Abiy has only acknowledged 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.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accused Eritrean troops of killing hundreds of Tigrayans in a November massacre in the town of Axum.
AFP has separately documented a massacre allegedly carried out by Eritrean troops in the town of Dengolat, also in November.
During a visit this month to the town of Wukro, just 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of regional capital Mekele, residents told AFP that Eritrean soldiers were still present, sometimes donning Ethiopian uniforms to disguise themselves.
Abiy told lawmakers that any abuses carried out by Eritrean soldiers would be "unacceptable," saying he had raised the issue "four or five times" with Asmara.
Tigrayan opposition party Salsay Weyane Tigray said Friday that any agreement about Eritrea's withdrawal would be "useless" without "an international regulatory body to check".
"It is another level of deception; a game they have been playing for a long time," Hailu Kebede, head of the party's foreign affairs department, said on Twitter.
"Withdraw all forces and establish an international observatory team. The world mustn't be fooled, again."
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called for the exit of the Eritreans as well as forces from Ethiopia's Amhara region, who have played a key role in securing parts of western and southern Tigray.
Amhara officials, however, say those parts of Tigray rightfully belong to them.
Abiy claimed victory in Tigray in late November after Ethiopian troops took Mekele, but TPLF leaders remain on the run and fighting continues.