A new twist in the Tigray conflict has emerged after the Tigray People’s Liberation Front said it was releasing soldiers it has detained but the Ethiopian government said most of those released were civilians and not soldiers.
The Tigray forces who are fighting Ethiopia's federal army on Saturday released 4,208 prisoners, including 401 women in an amnesty grant, claiming they were prisoners of war (POWs) – soldiers captured during the war.
The move came amid an escalating war of words between Tigray and the Federal Government, raising fears of renewed hostilities in the country's North.
Birhane Kebede, coordinator of the prisoners' centre in the Tigray region, said most of the POWs were captured during fighting outside of the Tigray region, and others joined the fight in a “forced conscription”.
The Tigray official said those who suffered illness or serious injuries during fighting, and women who gave birth while in detention were given priority for the release.
However, in a statement, the Ethiopian Government Communication Service on Sunday said most of the released captives were not POWs but civilians who were abducted in several parts of Amhara and Afar regions, as well as in Tigray following army's withdrawal from region last June.
“TPLF is trying to divert [the] attention of the international community, claiming it released POWs,” the statement said.
“Purported release of POWs is one of the manifestations of how the TPLF is peddling false stories as cover up to mislead the international community.”
Shortly after the statement was released, TPLF questioned the government's denial.
“Why is the Ethiopian Government Communication Service in Addis Ababa taking pains to deny that thousands of POWs have been released by, and almost twice as many POWs are still in the hands of the Government of Tigray?” Getachew Reda, Executive committee member of TPLF, tweeted.
This is the second time that Tigray forces have freed a large number of people.
In July 2021, Tigrayan forces paraded over 7,000 captives in the regional capital, Mekelle, claiming they were prisoners of war. They later said they released 1,000 government soldiers.
The Red Cross said it had no involvement in the latest release of the captives.
As efforts for peace talks grow slim, Metta-Alem Sinishaw, a senior political analyst in Ethiopia and the East African region, said rising tensions could set the warring parties in a war path again.
“A peaceful resolution of the conflict is unlikely, especially in the short term, as resolving the contested territory requires at least a lengthy process,” Metta-Alem told The EastAfrican.
“It is hard to imagine how the federal government would reconcile with TPLF until the later agrees to disarm and demobilise its fighter, a very unlikely trajectory due to TPLF's ambition and supremacist outlook on its warfare capability.”
The conflict between the Ethiopian government and Tigray forces has claimed the lives of thousands of people and left over five million people in need of emergency humanitarian assistance.