There have been several significant developments in the conflict in Ethiopia between the Federal Government and the Tigray Region. On Wednesday, Sudanese officials claimed that several Sudanese soldiers were killed in an ambush by ‘Ethiopian forces and militias’ on Tuesday as they were patrolling Sudanese territory close to the border and numerous others were injured. Also on Wednesday, an as yet unconfirmed South Sudanese media report claimed that the President of Tigray Regional State and leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Debretsion Gebremichael, has requested asylum in South Sudan.
While Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed claimed victory almost three weeks ago when Mekelle, the capital city of the Tigray region, was captured by Federal forces, most of the TPLF leadership remains at large. Moreover, although Federal forces have captured most of the major townships in Tigray and continue their advance into outlying areas, the few reports that are emerging from the region as well as other secondary indications (in particular the ongoing refusal of the Federal Government to permit international humanitarian agencies to provide food, medical and other emergency aid in the region) suggest that fighting is ongoing in many areas and the conflict may drag on for some time yet.
Among recent battlefield successes, Federal Government forces have reportedly captured the townships of Yechilay and Aragure (between Mekelle and the border with the province of Afar to the east), as well as several large arms caches and the Tekeze Dam.
More Ural trucks and pickups along with Grad rocket artillery boxes. More visible transport trucks and ammo crates pic.twitter.com/Zl8Hyg4h8h
— Ethiopia Map (@MapEthiopia) December 15, 2020
Meanwhile, the international repercussions from the conflict – which had thus far been largely contained – may be about to escalate dramatically as Sudan´s military stated on Wednesday that a cross-border attack had been carried out by Ethiopian forces and militias against a Sudanese army unit patrolling close to the border with Ethiopia.
On Wednesday the Sudan Tribune reported that:
The attack which is perceived as a new escalation from Sudan against its troops comes a few days after an accusation by a parliamentary committee accusing the Sudanese army of backing the Tigray rebels.
“On Tuesday evening, while our forces were returning to their base after inspecting the area around Jebel Abu Teyyor, inside the Sudanese territory, they were ambushed by Ethiopian forces and militias. The attack resulted in losses of human lives and equipment,” said the Sudanese Army Military Media Center in a statement on Wednesday.
The statement did not mention the number of dead, but military sources told the Sudan Tribune that the ambush had claimed the lives of an officer with the rank of major and 3 other soldiers, in addition to injuring 12 soldiers.
The Sudanese army said that its troops will vigorously repulse any attack on the Sudanese territory and announced the deployment of its forces to prevent the “parties to the conflict in Ethiopia from using the Sudanese territories in their attacks”.
Military Sources told the Sudan Tribune reporter in Gadaref that the Sudanese forces have been already deployed along the border.
The sources further said that fierce clashes have been taking place since the morning in the Al-Osra and east of Wad Aarod areas of Al-Quraysha locality and Abu Teyyour in Al-Fashaqa locality.
On 12 December, The Addis Ababa based newspaper, The Reporter, said that a parliamentary committee accused the Sudanese army of carrying out attacks on civilians after receiving bribes from the TPLF rebels.
The Committee “received reports from refugees who returned from Sudan that the TPLF forces are bribing some Sudanese forces to plot and instigate assault against civilians,” said Lemma Tessema, who chairs a parliamentary committee to investigate the situation in Tigray.
The Ethiopian army and its Amhara militiamen had earlier this year clashed with the Sudanese army several times. Addis Ababa had pledged to not repeat such attacks and formed a joint military committee on this respect. LINK
Three days before the reported attack, Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok met with the Ethiopia’s Prime Minister in Addis Ababa. The visit lasted a few hours, despite an announcement by Sudan that the visit would be for two days.
“Hamdok told a news conference that they finished their talks earlier than expected and there was no reason to stay.” LINK
Up until now the Sudanese Government and military, which are struggling to stabilize the country and bring Sudan’s long era of civil war and political turmoil to an end, appears to have been careful to avoid becoming entangled in the Ethiopian conflict and has cooperated extensively with the Federal Government of Ethiopia. This cooperation has included returning Ethiopian soldiers who had refused to fight in the internecine conflict and sought refuge in Sudan to Ethiopia to face prosecution by Federal authorities there.
The incident could have very serious consequences for the Ethiopian government if it doesn’t take immediate steps to investigate the allegations and, if verified, make substantive conciliatory gestures and measures to compensate for the harm done and guarantee that no such border violations by Federal forces occur in the future.
In this respect, while Sudan has been cooperating with the Federal Government of Ethiopia up until now, it has also stepped up military cooperation and joint exercises with Egypt (as well as several other Arab countries) in recent months, which could prove to be an invaluable insurance policy and support if relations with Ethiopia deteriorate. LINK
Also on Wednesday, another possible new development – yet to be verified – could further complicate the situation and raises the prospect that the Ethiopian Federal Government might be obliged to negotiate with at least some of the TPLF leadership after all, rather than executing them extra-judicially or parading them on what seems likely to be a largely predetermined show trial.
On Wednesday, Sudans Post reported:
Speaking to Sudans Post this morning, a South Sudan official who said he has direct knowledge of the matter said the Ethiopian leader [Debretsion] had visited the country three days before Al-Sisi’s visit [last month], but returned a day later to an East African country and did not meet al-Sisi.
“Debretsion was here before President Sisi visited Juba,” the official who refused to be named said in an interview with Sudans Post in Juba this morning. “When he came, he came here on November 25 and returned to one of the East African countries the same day and he didn’t meet al-Sisi and he didn’t also request to meet al-Sisi.”
The senior government official who said he personally met Debretsion said the Ethiopian opposition leader had requested President Salva Kiir’s government to mediate days after Abiy Ahmed gave his forces 72 hours to surrender, saying the world’s youngest country could play an important role in resolving the Tigray crisis.
“When he came, he was asking for President Salva Kiir mediation. He was in Uganda when he came here. He said that South Sudan can play an important role and he was told that we are not working separately from the region and was told to contact the IGAD [an East African regional intergovernmental organization] instead,” the official said.
“This was what was discussed, but now he has returned and he is seeking refuge and safety and is not here to seek assistant against the Ethiopian government. He is here to seek refuge,” the official said, adding that “the government of South Sudan is not ready to support those acting outside law against their enforcement.” LINK
If the report is confirmed, the final decision of the fledgling South Sudanese Government on whether to deport the fugitive to Ethiopia will be crucial – will it accept the Federal Government’s assertions at face value, or demand that evidence be provided to back up the government’s allegations? Or, possibly, decide to grant temporary political asylum on the grounds of persecution and the unlikelihood that the individual involved would receive a fair trial in which due process is observed?
In the latter case, the Federal Government’s stated objective of the military operation would be to a large extent thwarted, as one of the main targets of the ‘law enforcement operation’ – which is estimated to have caused over one thousand killed and hundreds of thousands forcibly displaced – will remain beyond reach.
The developments follow an increasing number of reports earlier this month confirming that Eritrean troops have been involved in the fighting. On December 8 The Guardian reported:
The claims made to Reuters, which interviewed several unidentified diplomats in the region and a US official, follow mounting allegations by Tigrayan leaders that Eritrea, long a rival of Ethiopia, had joined with Ethiopian forces against a common enemy despite denials from both nations…
According to the report, evidence of Eritrean involvement cited in the US view of the month-long war includes satellite images, intercepted communications and anecdotal reports from the Tigray region.
“There doesn’t appear to be a doubt anymore. It’s being discussed by US officials on calls – that the Eritreans are in Tigray – but they aren’t saying it publicly,” the US government source, who has been privy to the internal calls, told Reuters.
The latest allegations follow an incident on Sunday when a UN security team attempting to visit a camp for those displaced in the fighting reportedly encountered uniformed Eritrean troops during an incident in which they were shot at and detained.
Troops suspected of being Eritrean have also allegedly been spotted in the regional capital Mekelle, said a resident and two diplomats in touch with the city’s inhabitants.
Some were reported to be in Eritrean uniforms, one of the diplomats said. Others wore Ethiopian uniforms, but spoke Tigrinya with an Eritrean accent and drove trucks without license plates, the resident told Reuters. LINK
The Eritrean and Ethiopian Governments continue to categorically deny the allegations that Eritrean military forces are participating in the conflict.
MORE ON THE TOPIC:
- Ethiopian Government Struggles To Secure Its Military Victory In Tigray As Rebels Do Not Rush To Surrender
- Eritrean Armed Forces Entered Civil War In Ethiopia