A UN report due to be submitted to the General Assembly this month says Somali soldiers are fighting alongside Eritrean troops in Ethiopia’s war-torn Tigray region.
The 17-page-document prepared by UN special rapporteur Mohamed Babiker discusses the presence of Somali troops in Tigray – an issue that adds another dimension to the continuing conflict and growing humanitarian crisis.
“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,” the report said.
It also mentions the presence of Somali fighters near the Ethiopian city of Aksum, a Unesco World Heritage site that has been indiscriminately shelled since the fighting started last November.
The governments of Somalia and Eritrea have denied the participation of Somali soldiers in the conflict.
The UN report also points to grave abuses of human rights committed by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops in Tigray, including the looting of Saint Mary's Hospital and Aksum University Referral Hospital.
The report says the Eritrean military has committed “deliberate attacks against civilians and summary executions, indiscriminate attacks, sexual and gender-based violence, arbitrary detention, destruction and looting of civilian property and displacement and abduction of Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers".
The report makes recommendations to the Eritrean government that includes providing information on the presence of its troops in Tigray and answering the allegations of human rights abuses.
It asks Asmara “to ensure that protective measures are taken in areas under its effective territorial control to ensure respect for international humanitarian law and international human rights law by Eritrean troops present in Tigray".
The fighting in Tigray began eight months ago when Ethiopian and Eritrean troops alongside allied militias began an offensive against the Tigray People's Liberation Front.
The conflict has displaced about two million civilians and left 5.2 million in urgent need, the US said.
Human rights organisations including Doctors Without Borders and Amnesty International have documented incidents of sexual violence, extrajudicial killings and massacres in Tigray.
David Beasley, executive director of the UN World Food Programme, said on Tuesday that “time is running out” and called on all parties to allow free humanitarian access to the region to avert a catastrophe.
Cameron Hudson, senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Africa Centre, said there had been rumours of a Somali military presence in the region for a while, but this was the first time the UN has mentioned them.
He said the allegations could not be fully investigated because the UN was unable to gain full access to the region.
Mr Hudson said the more concerning issue in the UN report was Eritrea’s defiance and desire to increase its political and military influence in the area.
This pointed to "behind-the-scenes efforts of [Eritrean President] Isaias Afwerki to increase his influence across the region and the talk of a formal confederation between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia", Mr Hudson told The National.
“If this proves true, then it would demonstrate the dangerous power Isaias has to organise allies and direct them against his enemies, in this case the TPLF.”
He said such a development “would be very unsettling to Sudan, Djibouti and Kenya, specifically, all of whom are concerned by growing Eritrean influence in the region".
Despite outside pressure and pledges by Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed that Eritrean troops would withdraw from Tigray, Asmara has not pulled its fighters.
But the UN could exert pressure on Mogadishu to withdraw its forces.
“Somalia is the most susceptible to outside pressure given the budget support and security assistance it continues to get,” Mr Hudson said.