NAIROBI, Kenya — After months of denial, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia admitted this week that Eritrean troops had been fighting in Tigray, the war-torn northern Ethiopian region where the brutal conflict between pro-government and local fighters has become a byword for atrocities against civilians.
On Friday, under mounting American and international pressure, Mr. Abiy went one step further and announced that the Eritrean soldiers had agreed to go home.
Mr. Abiy’s statement, issued after a meeting with President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, offered a faint glimmer of hope amid a stream of horrific reports about widespread looting, massacres and sexual violence in Tigray.
soldiers from Eritrea — even as Mr. Isaias, the dictatorial leader of the notoriously secretive country, denied that his troops were even present in Tigray.
Mr. Abiy flew to meet Mr. Isaias on Thursday, days after an envoy sent by President Biden pressed the Ethiopian leader to halt the carnage, and to reinforce American calls for an immediate withdrawal of Eritrean troops.The United States has publicly called for Eritrean soldiers to be withdrawn from Tigray.
On Friday Eritrea’s information minister, Yemane Ghebremeskel, appeared to confirm Mr. Abiy’s declaration that an Eritrean troop withdrawal had been agreed upon. Public statements from both governments “underline full agreement and consensus on all issues discussed,” he said in a text message after Mr. Abiy had left the Eritrean capital, Asmara.
Mr. Abiy launched a military campaign in Tigray on Nov. 4, accusing rebellious Tigrayan leaders of orchestrating an attack on a major military base and trying to topple the federal government.
As the fighting gathered pace, reports of gross abuses against civilians began to emerge from Tigray. Ethiopian soldiers, allied fighters from ethnic Ahmara militias, and fighters loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front all faced accusations.
But United Nations officials and human rights groups singled out Eritrean troops for many of the worst violations. Last weekend, Mr. Abiy spent five hours in talks with U.S. Senator Chris Coons, who had been sent to Ethiopia by President Biden to convey his alarm at the deteriorating situation.
In a briefing to reporters on Thursday, Mr. Coons said that the talks were “forthright” at times, and that Mr. Abiy had reiterated his promise to investigate human rights abuses in Tigray, including “credible reports of sexual violence as a tool of war.”
But Mr. Abiy has fallen short on such commitments before, Mr. Coons said, and the United States intends to keep up the pressure.
“It’s actions that are going to matter,” he said.
On Friday a State Department spokeswoman welcomed Ethiopia’s announcement, calling it “an important step” toward de-escalation.
In a mark of the impunity that has come to characterize the Tigrayan conflict, Ethiopian soldiers dragged civilians from a bus on a major road in Tigray and executed four of them in front of aid workers from Doctors Without Borders, the group said in a statement Thursday.
a landmark peace deal soon after Mr. Abiy came to power.
The pact earned Mr. Abiy the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 and helped Mr. Isaias, one of the world’s most repressive leaders, to emerge from international isolation. After the Tigray war erupted in November, though, critics said the two leaders were mostly united by their shared hostility toward the leaders of Tigray.
It was unclear on Friday whether Mr. Abiy’s announcement signaled a potential breakthrough in ending the fighting in Tigray or another feint by two leaders under international pressure.
In his statement, Mr. Abiy said Eritrea had agreed to withdraw its forces “out of the Ethiopian border,” where, effective immediately, Ethiopian soldiers were to assume border guarding duties.
But it was unclear if that included Eritrean troops stationed deep inside Tigray, where many of the worst atrocities have occurred.
Amnesty International has blamed Eritrean forces for the massacre of hundreds of civilians in Axum, a city in northern Tigray. Sexual violence survivors from Tigray have blamed horrific assaults on Eritrean troops.
over 500 rape cases have been reported at five clinics in Tigray, although the actual number is likely far higher.
“Women say they have been raped by armed actors, they also told stories of gang rape, rape in front of family members, and men being forced to rape their own family members under the threat of violence,” the official, Wafaa Said, said.
Exactly how many Eritrean troops are stationed inside Tigray and where is unclear. Much of the region remains out of bounds for aid workers and reporters, and sporadic fighting continues in rural and mountainous areas.
Still, the departure of all Eritrean troops would likely pose a serious military challenge to Mr. Abiy.
The Ethiopian army fractured in the early days of the war, when hundreds and possibly more Ethiopian soldiers defected to the rebel side, according to Western officials. Since then, Mr. Abiy has regained control of a swath of Tigray with help from his allies — ethnic Amhara fighters and soldiers from Eritrea.
Were the Eritreans to leave en masse, some analysts say, government forces might struggle to maintain their grip on the parts of Tigray that they now control.
The calm is deceptive.
A stubbled crater attests to a recent artillery barrage, but with its bustling streets and shops, the highland Ethiopian city of Mekelle has an air of relative peace.
Then the stories start spilling out.
Of the hospital that begins its days with an influx of bodies bearing gunshot or knife wounds — people killed, relatives and Red Cross workers say, for breaching the nightly curfew.
Of the young man who made the mistake of getting into a heated argument with a government soldier in a bar. Hours later, friends said, four soldiers followed him home and beat him to death with beer bottles.
Of a nightlong battle between government forces and local militia fighters in a nearby town and its aftermath, when soldiers returning to collect their dead stormed into nearby homes, firing indiscriminately.
obtained by The New York Times.
A spokesman for the Ahmara regional government told Bloomberg this week that it was pressing to officially incorporate western Tigray into Amhara.
an investigation was approved by the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
In testimony to Congress last week, the United States secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, called the situation in Tigray unacceptable and reiterated calls for Eritrean troops to withdraw immediately.
“They need to come out,” Mr. Blinken said.
Mr. Mulu, the interim leader of Tigray, cuts a lonely figure in Mekelle. An ethnic Tigrayan installed by Mr. Abiy nine days into the war, he lives and works from a suite at the Axum Hotel where he is trying to trying to restart Tigray’s war-battered bureaucracy.
Unlike Mr. Abiy, Mr. Mulu does not deny the Eritrean presence in Tigray. And in an interview he said he had initiated his own investigation into reported atrocities.
“It’s not acceptable that people should die like this,” he said. “But we need evidence. We have requested our security forces to investigate it.”
Tigray’s health services, once among the best in Ethiopia, have been ravaged. On Monday, Doctors Without Borders said that dozens of clinics across the region had been destroyed and plundered by soldiers, often deliberately.
quit his job over the reports of atrocities in Tigray, accusing Mr. Abiy of leading Ethiopia “down a dark path toward destruction and disintegration.”
Inside Tigray, soldiers detained Ethiopian translators and reporters working for four international outlets, including The Times, last month. The men were released without charge days later, but by then most foreign reporters had been forced to leave Tigray.
In such a fraught environment, even massacres are contested.
Mr. Abiy’s officials frequently cite a massacre in Mai Kadra, a town in western Tigray, on Nov. 9, as an example of T.P.L.F. war crimes. Witnesses cited in an Amnesty International report blamed the deaths on Tigrayan fighters.
with a reputation for brutality, and insisted that the majority of victims were Tigrayans.
Solomon Haileselassie, 28, said he watched the slaughter from his hiding place in a garbage dump. “I saw them cut off people’s legs and arms with axes,” he said.
Fisseha Tekle, Amnesty International’s Horn of Africa researcher, said the group had received credible new evidence of Tigrayan deaths, but stood by the finding that the majority of victims were Amharas.
Restricted access and the “high politicization of violence” make it hard to establish the truth about much of anything in Tigray, Mr. Fisseha added.
An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Mekelle, Ethiopia.