Editors note: The UN Human Rights Council issued a damning report on the situation of human rights in Eritrea on 12 June, 2021. The report stated that there are credible reports Somali soldiers taken from their training camps in Eritrea were deployed in to the frontline war in Tigray region of Ethiopia alongside the Eritrean forces .
The 2018 peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea has resulted in much closer relations between the two countries, and has also led to closer links between Eritrea and Somalia. Nevertheless, border disputes between Eritrea and Djibouti persist, in addition to the issue of missing Djiboutian prisoners of war.
On 4 November 2020, tensions escalated in the region and an armed conflict erupted in Tigray when the Ethiopian National Defence Forces launched a military offensive against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front in response to reported attacks against the Ethiopian National Defence Forces’ military bases in Tigray by Tigrayan forces. The Ethiopian National Defence Forces were allegedly supported by Amhara regional forces and the Amhara Fano militia in western Tigray, and in particular by the Eritrean Defence Forces in northern and central Tigray. According to reports received, the conflict was characterized by air strikes on and the shelling of civilian structures, usually on the outskirts of towns, resulting in civilian casualties, followed by the occupation of the towns by Ethiopian National Defence Forces and the Eritrean army. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front systematically withdrew from urban areas as the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces advanced. Serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law against civilians by all parties to the conflict have been reported, including killing and injury of civilians, destruction of civilian homes and structures, and mass displacement of civilians.
The conflict in Tigray has resulted in many fatalities in the region. Much of the fighting in the first week of the conflict concentrated in the border regions between Kassala State in the Sudan and the western Tigray zone in Ethiopia, as refugees fled the area to Gedaref State in the Sudan.
In November 2020, the Special Rapporteur received a number of allegations indicating the participation of Eritrean troops in the conflict in Tigray alongside the Ethiopian army. The town of Himora, Eritrea, was reportedly subjected to indiscriminate shelling by Eritrea-based artillery. According to reports received, at least 46 people were killed by the shelling and more than 200 others were wounded. The Ethiopian National Defence Forces reportedly conducted air strikes on sites around Adigrat in eastern Tigray, resulting in civilian casualties and displacement. On 20 November 2020, Ethiopian and Eritrean troops took control of Adigrat. Eritrean forces reportedly committed extrajudicial executions of civilians and widespread sexual and gender-based violence and looting, and transported the looted goods to Eritrea on stolen trucks.
On 19 November 2020, after the Tigray People’s Liberation Front forces had allegedly withdrawn from Aksum, Ethiopia (declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1980), the Ethiopian National Defence Forces and Eritrean troops reportedly conducted indiscriminate shelling of the city, leading to many civilian casualties, and subsequently took control of the city. According to reports received, Eritrean soldiers carried out house searches, harassing residents and summarily executed those perceived as Tigray People’s Liberation Front fighters or sympathizers. In addition, reports indicated that Eritrean soldiers shot indiscriminately at civilians and killed patients in Saint Mary’s Hospital. The Ethiopian National Defence Forces and Eritrean soldiers reportedly looted and damaged Saint Mary’s Hospital and Aksum University Referral Hospital, including medical equipment, furniture, and the wing of the latter hospital equipped to treat COVID-19 patients.
On 28 November 2020, the Ethiopian National Defence Forces reportedly carried out artillery attacks on Mekele, the capital of Tigray, striking civilian structures such as homes, markets, hospitals and schools, and killing and injuring civilians, including children. The Ethiopian National Defence Forces and Eritrean troops subsequently entered the city. The Special Rapporteur received numerous reports of allegations of summary executions, arbitrary arrests, sexual violence and widespread looting of markets, hospitals, laboratories and homes by Eritrean troops.
In addition to reports of the involvement of Eritrean troops in the Tigray conflict, the Special Rapporteur also received information and reports that Somali soldiers were moved from military training camps in Eritrea to the front line in Tigray, where they accompanied Eritrean troops as they crossed the Ethiopian border. It is also reported that Somali fighters were present around Aksum. The Government of Somalia denied the participation of Somali soldiers in the Tigray conflict. It is further reported that a Somali parliamentary committee has demanded an explanation from the President of Somalia on the whereabouts of the Somali troops sent to Eritrea. The Special Rapporteur was informed that the foreign affairs and defence committee of the Parliament had called on the head of State to dispatch a fact-finding mission to Asmara for an investigation.
The conflict in Tigray has deepened ethnic tensions and created an immense humanitarian crisis, with 4.5 million people – most of Tigray’s population – in urgent need of assistance, according to United Nations humanitarian agencies. The United Nations has called for an independent investigation into numerous reports of looting and human rights violations, including sexual assault and attacks on refugee camps allegedly carried out by Eritrean and Ethiopian troops between November 2020 and January 2021, despite the protected humanitarian status of refugee camps under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.
In early January 2021, an Ethiopian official said that 2.2 million people had fled their homes in Tigray. Approximately 60,000 people have crossed the border into the Sudan, according to humanitarian agencies. Even before the conflict, the Tigray region was home to as many as 200,000 refugees and internally displaced persons, according to humanitarian agencies.
On 26 March 2021, the Ethiopian Prime Minister stated that Eritrea had agreed to withdraw its forces from Tigray and the Ethiopian border. However, at the time of writing, there was no sign that the deployment of the Eritrean military in Tigray was about to end.
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