NAIROBI (Reuters) -Eritrean forces have started withdrawing from the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry said, following mounting reports blaming the Eritreans for human rights abuses including rape, looting and killings of civilians.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed also described an upsurge of fighting in recent days, against “enemies” he said were mingling with the civilian population.
The United States, Germany, France and other G7 countries called on Friday for a swift, unconditional and verifiable withdrawal of the Eritrean soldiers, followed by a political process acceptable to all Ethiopians.
For months, Eritrea and Ethiopia denied the presence of Eritrean troops despite dozens of eyewitness accounts. On March 23, Ethiopia’s Abiy acknowledged their presence. Eritrea has still not acknowledged its soldiers are in Ethiopia and denies responsibility for abuses there.
“The Eritrean troops who had crossed the border when provoked by the TPLF have now started to evacuate and the Ethiopian National Defense Force has taken over guarding the national border,” the Ethiopian foreign ministry said in a statement, referring to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, Ethiopia’s main foes in the conflict.
Abiy said his forces had conducted major operations over the last three days, as it fights enemies on eight fronts in the west and north. He did not mention Tigray specifically but the region is located in the north.
“When the junta shifted to a guerrilla force, mingled with the farmers, and started to move from place to place. We are not able to eliminate it within three months,” he said in remarks in a video posted on his Facebook page.
Ethiopia sent its troops to Tigray in November to fight against the TPLF, then the regional ruling party, which had attacked army bases in the region. In late November, the TPLF withdrew from regional capital Mekelle and the Ethiopian government declared victory.
Electricity and phone connections to Tigray have been down for the past four days, making it difficult to verify any Eritrean withdrawal. Reuters journalists in Tigray last month saw Eritrean soldiers in major towns and main roads, far beyond the border area.
Thousands of people have been killed in the conflict, hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes and there are shortages of food, water and medicine in the region.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said this week there were “clashes and ambushes reported in most parts of the region”. Last month an aid organisation also witnessed the aftermath of an ambush on a military convoy and extrajudicial executions of civilians immediately afterward on a main road.
The Foreign Ministry said full access to the region has now been granted to humanitarian organisations.
OCHA said on its website: “In parts of Southern and South Eastern Tigray, for example, access has been curtailed for over a month and the road from Alamata to Mekelle remains closed, blocking humanitarian operations in the area.”
The Foreign Ministry said a joint investigation with external experts into alleged human rights violations would start soon and urged donors to send more food and medical aid.
(Reporting by Nairobi Newsroom, Writing by Duncan Miriri, Editing by Frances Kerry, Timothy Heritage and Peter Graff)