News Highlights Extra No. 6: Conflict in the Horn

EEPA is sending extra news highlights on the conflict in the Horn of Africa: previous highlights extra and EEPA’s situation reports on the Horn crisis.


Fighting continues in the Tigray region
The Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) have stated they control the situation in Tigray, but this is contradicted by reports of ongoing fighting and claims by Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Tigray regional forces of victories in several battles. The Tigray regional forces maintain control over mountainous areas in Tigray. Reports of atrocities committed against civilians continue to come in. Sources report ENDF is retreating from rural positions towards the Tigray capital of Mekelle. It is reported that a shooting took place among ENDF troops as forces refused a federal order to fight the Tigray forces in mountainous areas, arguing they came to keep peace and order and arrest TPLF leadership. Additional ENDF forces moving to Tigray reportedly consist of 8 tanks and troops in vehicles. Fighting continues to take place around Mekelle. Shelling has been observed near Hagere Selam, 50 kilometers from the regional capital. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) recently claims that it has killed 100 ENDF soldiers near Abraha Atsbeha, North of Mekelle. It also claims to have destroyed 2 tanks. A source reports that heavy fighting is taking place between Tigray regional forces and Eritrean combatants near Endabaguna and Kisadgaba. Reportedly Tigray forces launched an attack on looting Eritrean soldiers. The Amhara Chief Commissioner of Police, Abere Adamu, has given a speech on the involvement of Amhara forces in the conflict with Tigray. According to him, Amhara special forces played and continue to play an important role in positioning ENDF forces prior to the conflict, and coordinating and guiding ENDF forces at the moment. The President of Amhara was allegedly aware that a conflict was going to take place.

Ethiopian officials confirm the presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray
Evidence is mounting that Eritrean forces are in Ethiopia, as reported by witnesses, media and diplomats. Two Ethiopian officials have acknowledged the presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray. The Federally appointed provisional mayor of Mekelle, Mr. Atakilti Haileslassie, has urged Eritrean troops’ immediate withdrawal from Tigray. Eritrean media Tesfanews, however, argues that Atakilti was talking about Amhara troops. Later, The Chair of Tigray of the Prosperity Party Ethiopia’ the ruling party, Nebeye Sehul, said that Eritrean soldiers fighting in Tigray were probably deserters seeking better lives in Ethiopia. Nebeye says that the government is investigating. In a televised message, the Commander of the ENDF in Tigray reportedly stated that the Eritrean troops were “not invited”. Multiple sources state that Eritrean soldiers are blocked in attempts to leave Tigray. Heavy fighting between Ethiopia National Defense Forces (ENDF) and Tigray forces is taking place near the major roads out to Eritrea. This has stopped the Eritrean transfer of looted goods out of the Tigray region.

Humanitarian situation: displacement, gender-based violence and hunger as unimpeded access remains absent
The United Nations says that access to Tigray has improved slightly, but it remains critically challenged. Earlier, it was reported the UN risk assessment team has not been able to travel outside Mekelle. Insecurity and bureaucracy are constraining the aid that can be provided. The UN has been able to access the main cities, but cannot access rural areas and Hitsats and Shimelba refugee camps. A Dutch humanitarian organization ZOA staff member was killed in Hitsats camp while on duty. Further, reports are circulating of severe violence against women: “countless number of women” are victims of physical and sexual abuse and rape, including gang rape and other forms of violence and brutality. Following reports of women being kidnapped, calls have been made to investigate as soon as possible. It is reported that women in Mekelle are asking for a post pill to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

Situation of refugees
Although 61.000 refugees from Ethiopia have now reached Sudan, more arrivals are hindered by Ethiopian troops deployed to block their access. As refugees are transported from transfer centres, Sudanese refugee camps are reaching their limits. The UN reports that in East Sudan, the first refugees have been transferred from the Village 8 reception centre to the new camp in Tunaydbah. An outbreak of coronavirus has slowed down the transfers. Um Rakuba camp approaches full capacity. The tensions in the camps between refugees from different ethnic groups is reportedly high. UNHCR spokesperson, Andrej Mahedic, states that more than 30% of the refugees arriving from Ethiopia are minors, younger than 18, whilst 5% are elderly, older than 60. The situation of Eritrean refugees in Tigray remains of concern, as the UN has been unable to access Hitsats and Shimelba refugee camps. Satellite images show fires around Hitsats refugee camp. The UNHCR is concerned about the reported forced repatriation of Eritrean refugees from Addis Ababa to Tigray. Many Eritreans fleeing the conflict in Tigray have been forced to return to the camps they left in November. UNHCR is requesting access to all facilities at which refugees are being held.

GERD Dam negotiations uncertain as Sudan leaves the table
The negotiations on the Grand Renaissance Ethiopian Dam (GERD) between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia have collapsed after Sudan did not attend. Sudan wants to give a greater role to African Union experts and observers to facilitate negotiations and reconcile opinions. The EU, US, and AU are observing the talks. Egypt has urged for an agreement to “achieve the common interests of the three countries,” but which also “secure[s] Egypt’s rights and water interests.” The head of Egypt’s intelligence service has met with the Sudanese Prime Minister Hamdok as well as the Head of Sudan’s Sovereign Council, General Al-Burhan. They discussed regional developments and the GERD dam negotiations. President Al-Sisi of Egypt and Al-Burhan also spoke on the phone on Monday. Eritrean Minister of Information, Yemane Meskel, informs that Minister of Foreign Affairs, Osman Saleh and Presidential Adviser, Yemane Ghebreab, met Sudan’s Head of the Sovereign Council, General Al-Burhan, delivering a message from Eritrean President Afewerki.

Regional situation
Clashes between Ethiopia and Sudan ended last week, after the Ethiopian army withdrew away from the border. Sudan has declared that it achieved control of its territory occupied by Ethiopian farmers after several weeks of fighting in the area.  Tensions remain high amid the GERD dam negotiations. The Sudanese army deputy of staff has said that Sudan will restore sovereignty over the entire al-Fashqa region which is occupied by ethnic Amhara Ethiopian farmers. In addition, Sudanese military intelligence has said it has arrested 45 TPLF fighters arriving in Sudan. Sudan Tribune has reported that more Ethiopian troops were deployed to stop refugees from reaching Sudan. Reporting on the 38th Extraordinary Assembly by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) states there was an expectation that Ethiopian PM Abiy would invite the AU Commission Chair Moussa Faki Mahamat to visit Tigray. The trip, however, was erased from the final communique. Ethiopia rejects “any foreign intervention” in a crisis that it says is purely domestic. Al Shabaab and the Somalia ISIS branch have been emboldened after Ethiopia and the US withdrew a significant number of troops. The terrorist organisations state that they will disrupt elections planned for early 2021. There are fears of suppression and low turnout.

International situation
With the ongoing armed conflict and reports of mass killing in the Tigray region, concern has grown for the safety of the civilians and refugees. The UN and other aid organisations continue to call for unimpeded access to Tigray, both for humanitarian aid and to investigate abuses and killings. In a letter by the British Minister for Africa, James Duddridge MP he states “we are concerned about the continuing violence in the Tigray region. […] We are deeply worried about the risks the conflict poses to civilian lives.” The call for urgent restoration of peace and unimpeded access to humanitarian aid in the region was reiterated by the Ethiopian Diaspora for Research and Education Advancement through Partnership (ED-REAP). The ED-REAP is calling on all parties to put an end to hostilities and resolve the conflict with a comprehensive national dialogue. The US Council on Foreign Relations writes that misinformation and suppression of free speech erodes the credibility of PM Abiy. In further international developments in the region, the UN peacekeeping mission to Darfur in Sudan, ongoing since 2003, has ended. 800 Ethiopian soldiers helping with policing the area are returning home.

Famine predicted in Ethiopia
The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) released its forecast of early warning and analysis on food security until May 2021 and has predicted considerable food insecurity across Ethiopia. According to the outlook, the disrupted market function and economic activity and the conflict in the Tigray region have led to an evident decline in “food security among displaced, urban, and poor rural households despite the ongoing harvest.” FEWSNET expects that half the territory will be in crisis (IPC Phase 3) with many households having limited ability to access food and income. Without humanitarian aid and assistance, emergency (IPC Phase 4) outcomes are likely ongoing in the region. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization further warns of desert locust swarms in the entire Horn of Africa region.

Situation in Tigray
A preliminary report by the interim Tigray administration was released on the damages of the conflict in the region. According to their assessment, 4.5 million people need humanitarian assistance and many houses have been completely destroyed and/or looted. The University of Mekelle has at least been partially looted. Citizens in Mekelle report reluctance to leave their house due to fear of being forcefully conscripted in the army. The UN estimates that more than 322,000 people are Internally Displaced (IDP) in Tigray. The provisional Tigrayan government reported earlier that it believed there were 2.2 million IDPs. The UN says health facilities in Tigray outside cities are not operational, while those in cities are in critical need of supplies. Many towns in Tigray have been attacked by ENDF and Eritrean troops by heavy artillery since the start of the conflict; the attacks have caused civilian casualties. The towns include Humera, Shire, Aksum, Adwa, Adigrat, Wukro, Mekelle, Hewane, Workamba, Abi Adi, and Hagerselam. Recently, a witness has told federal broadcaster ETV that Amanuel Church in Tigray has been shelled. Civilians were seeking shelter inside and were killed as a result of the attack. Amanuel is near the UNESCO site Negash Mosque, estimated by some to be Africa’s oldest mosque, which was severely damaged in December as a result of shelling. Ethiopian Vice President Demeke stated that the Ethiopian government is providing food and supplies to Tigray and that telecom, electricity, and full banking access will soon start again. Demeke also stated the federally appointed interim government in Tigray has been tasked with organizing new general elections in Tigray, and that opposition parties have been invited to participate.

Eritrean soldiers in Tigray reportedly engaged in extortion
According to internal sources, Eritrean soldiers involved in the Tigray region are engaged in extortions. The abduction has been reported in Rama and other locations. People with relatives abroad are selected and offered to have a call with them, then they are detained by Eritrean soldiers who made the offer. In a second moment, relatives abroad are contacted by soldiers and threaten to kill the member of the family detained. This kind of extortion conducted by Eritrean human traffickers has previously been reported also in Sudan, Libya and Egypt.

Ethnic profiling and targeting continues in Ethiopia
According to various media, different massacres with a possible ethnic profile have been reported all over the Tigray. The area of Humera and Adigrat have been particularly affected with a high number of casualties and reports of mass civilian casualties. Profiling and targeting of Tigrayans continues in Ethiopia, where people coming from Tigray have been banned from work, travel and have been submitted to severe security measures. The presence of truckloads transported to the Eritrean military base of Asholgot has been reported, while properties of Tigrayans have been looted by Amhara and Eritrean troops. Target locations reportedly included schools and universities, religious and commercial places. Tigrayans at airports are being asked whether they participated in the election on 9 September. Fana, the Ethiopian state broadcaster, reported that an Ethiopian airlines employee of Tigrayan origin had been charged with assisting in the organising of the election. Another Tigrayan, a manager at the state company Ethiotelecom, has also been accused of participating in the election as a voter. The New York Times (NYT) reported earlier that Tigrayans had their houses ransacked by police. Businesses owned by Tigrayans have been forced to close or have had their finances investigated. State companies are firing Tigrayan employees.