The United States has said all soldiers from Eritrea should leave Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region “immediately”.
The Eritreans have been fighting on the side of Ethiopian forces as they pursue fugitive leaders of the Tigray region, though Ethiopia’s government has denied their presence.
Witnesses who fled the Tigray region have said Eritrean troops were going house-to-house killing young men, looting, and acting as local authorities.
“Credible reports of looting, sexual violence, assaults in refugee camps, and other human rights abuses,” a State Department statement said. “There is also evidence of Eritrean soldiers forcibly returning Eritrean refugees from Tigray to Eritrea.”
The statement reflected new pressure by the President Joe Biden administration on the government of Ethiopia, the anchor of the Horn of Africa, and other combatants as the deadly fighting in Tigray nears the three-month mark.
The new US statement called for an independent and transparent investigation into alleged abuses. “It remains unclear how many Eritrean soldiers are in Tigray, or precisely where,” it said.
It was not immediately clear whether the US has addressed its demand directly to Eritrean officials.
Witnesses have estimated that Eritrean soldiers number in the thousands. Eritrean officials have not responded to questions.
The information minister for Eritrea, one of the world’s most secretive countries, this week tweeted “the rabid defamation campaign against Eritrea is on the rise again”.
The US also seeks an immediate stop to the fighting in Tigray and “full, safe and unhindered humanitarian access” to the region, which remains largely cut off from the outside world, with Ethiopian forces often accompanying aid.
“We are gravely concerned by credible reports that hundreds of thousands of people may starve to death if urgent humanitarian assistance is not mobilised immediately,” the statement said.
The US also said, “Dialogue is essential between the government and Tigrayans.”
Ethiopia’s government has rejected dialogue with the former Tigray leaders, seeing them as illegitimate, and has appointed an interim administration.
The former Tigray leaders, in turn, objected to Ethiopia delaying a national election last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic and considered Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s mandate over.
Abiy government declared victory in its conflict with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a political party that previously governed the province, on November 28 after it regained control of the region’s capital, Mekelle.
The fighting started after the TPLF allegedly attacked federal military bases at multiple locations in the region, triggering a war that has shaken the Horn of Africa. The Tigray conflict spurred tens of thousands of Ethiopian refugees to cross into neighbouring Sudan.
Africa’s second-most populous nation has been grappling with regular outbreaks of deadly violence since Abiy was appointed in 2018 and accelerated democratic reforms that loosened the state’s iron grip on regional rivalries.