Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said Eritrea has agreed to withdraw its forces from Tigray, which witnessed mass atrocities against civilians during the months-long conflict in the restive region.
“In our March 26, 2021 discussions with President Isaias Afwerki during my visit to Asmara, the government of Eritrea has agreed to withdraw its forces out of the Ethiopian border,” Abiy said in a statement posted to his Twitter account on Friday.
“The Ethiopian National Defense force will take over guarding the border areas effective immediately,” Abiy said.
The prime minister added that restoring “trust-based people to people relations among our citizens in the Tigray region and fellow Eritreans across the border is essential”.
The new statement does not say how many Eritrean soldiers have been in Ethiopia, although witnesses have estimated that number is well into the thousands.
Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Meskel did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
The statement comes after intense pressure from the United States and others to address the deadly crisis in Tigray, where witnesses have described Eritrean soldiers looting, killing and raping.
Eritrean troops in Tigray
The Ethiopian prime minister earlier this week admitted for the first time that troops from neighbouring Eritrea entered its northern region of Tigray during the conflict that broke out five months ago, suggesting they may have been involved in abuses against civilians.
The admission on Tuesday comes after months of denials from Ethiopia and Eritrea, even as credible accusations from human rights groups and residents mounted that Eritrean soldiers have carried out mass killings in Tigray following the start of the Ethiopian government’s offensive against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), then the region’s governing party.
Al Jazeera’s Catherine Soi said people are waiting to see whether Ethiopia’s government will allow an independent investigation into violations of human rights.
“Officials in Ethiopia have said they are investigating human rights abuses,” she said, speaking from Nairobi.
“More and more journalists are being allowed access to Tigray as well as other human rights organisations. People are watching to see whether this time will be different and are calling for a full and independent investigation from independent bodies.”
Abiy claimed victory in Tigray in late November after Ethiopian troops took the regional capital Mekelle, but TPLF leaders remain on the run and fighting continues.
Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch reported that Eritrean forces shot dead hundreds of children and civilians in a November mass killing in Tigray.
An Amnesty International investigation into the same events detailed how Eritrean troops “went on a rampage and systematically killed hundreds of civilians in cold blood”.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres joined calls for the Eritrean troops to leave Tigray while the UN human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, urged an investigation into the situation.
Abiy shocked the region in 2018 by making peace with Eritrea after a long border war in the Tigray region, an achievement for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
But since the current Tigray conflict began in November, Abiy has been accused of teaming up with Eritrea to pursue the now-fugitive Tigray leaders.
Cut off from the world
Abiy’s statement accuses the former Tigray leaders of starting the conflict by attacking Ethiopian forces, then drawing Eritrea into the fighting by firing rockets into Eritrea’s capital.
But witnesses have alleged the involvement of Eritrean soldiers from the start of the fighting.
The US weeks ago demanded that Eritrean soldiers leave Tigray immediately, and pressure increased in recent days with the Biden administration dispatching Senator Chris Coons to Ethiopia nearly a week ago for hours of talks with Abiy.
No one knows how many thousands of people, especially civilians, have been killed in the Tigray fighting. The region of some six million people has been largely cut off from the world, and despite some progress in aid delivery, humanitarian workers have warned that food and other supplies coming in are far from enough as fears of starvation grow.
And only in recent days has the United Nations human rights office said it has been allowed into the Tigray region in a limited capacity to support investigations into alleged atrocities including mass rapes by Eritrean soldiers and others.
Victims spoke of being raped by armed actors, gang raped, and men being forced to rape their own family members under the threat of violence.
A spokeswoman for Abiy’s office did not immediately respond to questions about Friday’s statement, including why the Eritreans had not withdrawn after earlier requests.