Elite unit close to hotly contested Western Tigray area that may provoke Eritrea’s military response
BY SIMON MARKS & MOHAMMED ALAMIN | BLOOMBERG
Hundreds of ethnic Tigrayans from Ethiopia who served in a United Nations peacekeeping force have joined a battle for a strategic town in the northwest of the country, according to people familiar with the matter, the latest twist in an internal conflict that erupted in late 2020.
The fighting has pitted Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s forces against soldiers loyal to the Tigray region’s ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front [TPLF]. While a truce was agreed five months ago, each side has accused the other of carrying out fresh attacks, raising fears of a return to all-out war.
The capture of the town of Humera, which lies at an intersection between Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan, by the Tigrayans would be a significant development because it would enable the TPLF to open up weapons-supply corridors and potentially launch an attack on Eritrea, a long-standing foe.
The ex-peacekeepers refused to return to Ethiopia earlier this year after completing a mission in Abyei, a border region contested by Sudan and South Sudan. They’ve since found refuge in Sudan, where they applied for asylum and prepared to join the war, according to five people with knowledge of the situation who asked not to be identified because they aren’t authorized to speak to the media.
The ex-peacekeepers, including hundreds of officer-level soldiers who were part of the Ethiopian army before joining the UN force, initially conducted operations inside Sudan and have recently moved close to Humera in western Tigray, two of the people said.
Eritrea has backed Abiy’s war with Tigray, while Sudan’s government has been at odds with his administration over the construction of a massive hydropower dam on the Nile River that originates in Ethiopia and traverses Sudan.
Getachew Reda, a member of the TPLF’s executive committee, confirmed that the former peacekeepers had entered western Tigray. Billene Seyoum, Abiy’s spokeswoman, didn’t respond to questions.
Brigadier Nabil Abdullah, a spokesman for the Sudanese Armed Forces, denied that any unit of the Tigrayan armed forces or the ex-UN peacekeepers were present in his country. A spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency and the peacekeepers in Sudan didn’t reply to questions.
The unit has been joined by a number of people who fled fighting during the war and some residents of western Tigray, according to two of the people. Access to the region has been restricted and most communications have been cut off, making it difficult to verify what the unit has been doing or how effective it has been.
Thousands of Tigrayans have been detained and held without trial in makeshift prisons across Ethiopia since the civil war erupted. More than 500 Ethiopian peacekeepers stationed in Sudan sought asylum in April rather than return home, fearing they would be persecuted due to their Tigrayan ethnicity.