Ethiopian peacekeepers from Tigray ask for asylum in Sudan

Hundreds from United Nations mission have refused to return home, UN representative says

Ethiopian Unisfa peacekeepers on patrol in Abyei. AFP
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More than 500 UN peacekeepers from Ethiopia's Tigray region who asked for political asylum in Sudan have refused to return home, AFP reported.

Until last year, Ethiopian forces accounted for the majority of the 4,000-member United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei mission in the disputed border region between Sudan and South Sudan.

Most of the Ethiopian forces returned home after the contingent was replaced by a multinational force following a breakdown in relations between Ethiopia and Sudan.

But hundreds have now requested asylum, a UN peacekeeping representative told AFP in New York.

“A number of peacekeepers have chosen not to return and are seeking international protection. They are being protected by the UN in a secure location,” the representative said.

“The responsibility to grant asylum lies with the Sudanese authorities, who are being assisted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in receiving these individuals.”

Ties between Ethiopia and Sudan have deteriorated because of a territorial dispute and Ethiopia's dam project on the Blue Nile, which Sudan fears will threaten its access to water.

A total of 528 Ethiopian soldiers from Tigray requested asylum in Sudan, according to Maj Gebre Kidane, a Tigrayan former peacekeeper. The figure was confirmed by two other peacekeepers contacted by AFP.

“It's not secure to go back to Ethiopia and we want to be the voice of the people of Tigray” before the international community, the 40-year-old told AFP from Abyei, explaining his decision to apply for asylum in March.

Since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray in November 2020 in response to what he said were rebel attacks on army camps, the conflict has divided the multi-ethnic nation.

An early victory against the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which ruled Ethiopia for nearly 30 years until 2018, was followed by a rebel comeback last June, when they took back control of Tigray and expanded into neighbouring regions.

Since then, the war has dragged on, with essential services shut in Tigray for several months while aid trickles in after both sides agreed to a conditional humanitarian truce in March.

The region of six million people, about six per cent of Ethiopia's population, has been under a de facto blockade, according to the UN.

Tigrayan officers were purged from federal army ranks soon after the war started, while ordinary Tigrayans have described being subjected to arbitrary arrests in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.

“Peacekeepers from Tigray previously went back to Ethiopia. Some of them were arrested, some killed,” said Gebre Kidane, who has been based in Abyei since July 2020.

“The people of Tigray have been living in darkness, and the international community is watching in silence. We want to make the international community pay attention.”

The Ethiopian government did not respond to AFP's calls for comment on the troops' request for asylum.

Updated: April 25, 2022, 6:36 AM