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Witnesses: Eritrean troops withdrawing from towns in Tigray

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Witnesses in some towns across Ethiopia’s Tigray region say troops from neighboring Eritrea have started withdrawing in large convoys, a potentially significant development after a devastating conflict in the region ended late last year.

The presence of the Eritreans despite a peace deal signed in November between Ethiopia’s federal government and Tigray forces has been seen as a major challenge to the agreement’s implementation. Eritrea, allied with Ethiopian forces, wasn’t a party to the deal that ended two years of fighting, which was estimated by researchers to have killed 500,000 people.

“The Eritrean forces have started withdrawing from Shire in large convoys today,” a humanitarian worker in Shire town told The Associated Press on Friday, describing several dozen vehicles carrying soldiers in Eritrean military uniforms. The witness, speaking like others on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said that some vehicles were heading in the direction of Sheraro, near the Eritrean border.

A civil servant in the town of Axum said that residents had been told to avoid the main street as “Eritrean forces started to exit from the area.” A resident in the town of Adwa confirmed the withdrawal of Eritrean forces there.

Ethiopian government spokesman Legesse Tulu and a spokesman for the Tigray side didn’t immediately respond to questions.

Eritrean forces entered Ethiopia’s devastating conflict in its earliest days. The Ethiopian and Eritrean governments denied the participation of Eritrea, one of the world’s most reclusive nations, until Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed acknowledged it in March 2021.

Rights groups, ethnic Tigrayans and some Western countries expressed alarm over the presence of Eritrean forces, which were blamed for some of the worst abuses in the conflict including widespread rapes. Even after the peace deal was signed, witnesses alleged that some Eritrean forces continued to loot and kill.

In an apparent acknowledgement of participation in the conflict, the Eritrean Embassy in Ethiopia on Wednesday posted excerpts from state-owned newspaper Hadas Eritrea saying that “the favor the Eritrean government and people did to Ethiopia will be written in golden colors in history and in the region … and (it) has got rid of an international danger,” referring to Tigray forces that Eritrea’s government has long regarded as a threat.

The Ethiopian military “didn’t lose support in the last two years from the greatly disciplined, fighting capable and unrivaled Eritrean army,” the newspaper excerpt said. “Because of this, the (Tigray forces) traitorous group defeat has been concluded with humiliation and disarmament.”

Eritrea has been a bitter enemy of the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front that dominated Ethiopian politics for close to 30 years until Abiy came to power in 2018. Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a bloody border war from 1998 to 2000, but Abiy made peace with Eritrea shortly after taking office.

Cara Anna, The Associated Press