Ethiopia's Tigray rebels announce pull back of forces to home region

Withdrawal of the TPLF from Afar and Amhara was a major condition of the truce announced by PM Abiy Ahmed's government

Internally displaced people from Berhale at a makeshift compound in Afdera town, Ethiopia, February 23, 2022. Reuters
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Tigrayan rebels said that they have withdrawn from a region neighbouring war-racked Tigray, fulfilling a key condition set by the government of Ethiopia when it declared a humanitarian truce last month.

The claims could not be independently verified and government officials did not respond immediately to AFP requests for comment.

The 17-month conflict between government forces and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) has sparked fears of famine in Tigray and created a humanitarian crisis in northern Ethiopia as the fighting spread to neighbouring Amhara and Afar.

The withdrawal of the TPLF from Afar and Amhara was a major condition of the truce announced by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government with a view to easing aid deliveries to Tigray, which has been under a de facto blockade, according to the UN.

Although the pause in fighting this month allowed humanitarian convoys by road to resume after being cut off since mid-December, the region of six million people is still receiving only a fraction of what it needs.

On Tuesday, two TPLF spokesmen, Getachew Reda and Kindeya Gebrehiwot, told AFP that their forces had pulled out of Afar.

"We have already withdrawn from all parts of Afar," Mr Kindeya said in a message to AFP. "Humanitarian and political issues should be de-linked."

The announcement followed an open letter by the TPLF to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres last Wednesday in which the rebels said they were "committed to further withdrawal of Tigray forces from Afar territory".

"The issue is whether or not there is a system in place to facilitate regular, sufficient and unfettered aid flow into Tigray," the letter said.

The government and the rebels have long accused each other of blocking aid to Tigray, where people are living without basic services such as electricity, internet, telecommunications or banking.

The United States aid chief Samantha Power met Ethiopia's Finance Minister Ahmed Shide on Friday in Washington and urged the government to do "much more ... to facilitate significant and sustained humanitarian access to all Ethiopians in need" a USAID statement said.

The war has killed untold numbers of people, displaced more than two million and left more than nine million in need of food aid, according to the UN.

The conflict erupted in November 2020 when Nobel peace laureate Mr Abiy sent troops into Tigray to topple the TPLF, the region's former ruling party, saying the move was a response to rebel attacks on army camps.

In neighbouring Sudan, up to 550 Ethiopian peacekeepers have sought asylum rather than return home for fear they will be persecuted because of their Tigrayan ethnicity, an official told Reuters on Tuesday.

The soldiers, numbering between 525 and 550, were part of a UN peacekeeping force working in Abyei, a contested oil-rich area on Sudan's border with South Sudan, the official working in refugee response told Reuters.

Ethiopian government spokesperson Legesse Tulu and military spokesman Col Getnet Adane did not immediately respond to Reuters' request for comment on the soldiers seeking asylum. Nor did representatives of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, nor the UN peacekeeping office.

The official said that the soldiers were at the peacekeeping mission's rear base in Kadugli in South Kordofan and that UNHCR was planning to move them to a fenced camp near a refugee camp for Eritreans in Sudan's Gadaref state.

Thousands of Tigrayans, civilians and soldiers, were imprisoned in squalid conditions in Ethiopia without charge after war erupted in the Tigray region in November 2020.

Since the fighting started, rights groups have said ethnic Tigrayans have been repeatedly detained without trial. The state-appointed rights commission said last year that thousands of ethnic Tigrayans were detained, including very elderly people, nursing mothers and babies.

At the time, police denied targeting any ethnic group, saying they targeted suspected TPLF supporters.

The UN said at least 15,000 Tigrayan civilians were arrested or imprisoned across Ethiopia under the state of emergency declared in November and lifted in February.

At the beginning of the conflict, Tigrayan police and soldiers were disarmed and put in secure areas. It is not clear if they have been released.

Tigrayan peacekeepers serving in UN missions in Darfur have previously sought asylum.

The government has repeatedly said it is fighting against the TPLF and not Tigrayans in general.

Updated: April 27, 2022, 11:18 AM