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Tigray conflict — the truth remains elusive

Eshete Bekele | Kate Hairsine | Rob Mudge
December 7, 2020

The situation in Ethiopia's Tigray region remains opaque making it difficult to separate fact from fiction — not least due to a media blackout. DW takes a look at some of the claims.

Survivors of an alleged massacre in Tigray in a hospital

1. Does the image below show coffins of soldiers killed in the clashes?

There are numerous photos making the rounds purporting to show victims of the clashes between Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) forces and the Ethiopian military.

DW fact check:

False. A reverse image search shows that the picture above actually depicts the victims of a suicide bombing in northern Mali in 2017 in which 77 people were killed. 

The image also appeared in a news article from 2019. This suggests that the image has been making the rounds online well before the conflict in Ethiopia began last month.

2. Does the TPLF have 250,000 professionally trained troops?

"The TPLF has considerable military assets and anestimated 250,000 troops fighting on mountainous terrain they know well."

DW fact check:

False/Misleading. This figure has been making the rounds in various media/social media outlets.

The AFP news agency, for example, wrote on November 10: "Given Tigray has powerful military forces, with an estimated 250,000 troops, a war could be lengthy and bloody."

This statistic is probably the conflation of figures used in a widely shared briefing by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think tank, made available on November 4.

"Tigray has a large paramilitary force and a well-drilled local militia, thought to number perhaps 250,000 troops combined," the briefing says. 

A Google search for the period before November 4 fails to return results mentioning 250,000 paramilitary, militia, troops or forces in Tigray, reinforcing the idea that the statistic came from the International Crisis Group. 

The ICG briefing emphasizes that the 250,000 figure includes local or village militias, as opposed to professionally trained troops.

An ICG spokesperson, who wished to remain anonymous, told DW that "the figure is an upper estimate from Tigrayan officials and includes not just regional security forces but also all members of community defense militia operating across Tigray at the local level."

Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow with theAfrica Center at the Atlantic Council and a former CIA and State Department official, thinks the figure is overstated. "We just don't know how many irregular forces who were called up are still fighting and how many have laid down arms and tried to blend back into society. My suspicion is that the number of actual fighters is actually quite low — in the tens of thousands. How else could they have all escaped [the regional capital] Mekele without being seen?" he told DW.

Map of Ethiopia

3. How many and what kind of weapons are in the hands of the TPLF?

According to claims by pro-TPLF activists, the regional force has 350 tanks, 300 rocket launchers, 580 cannons, and 1,000 anti-aircraft missiles.

That claim also appears in this Facebook post from Digital Woyane, a pro-TPLF platform.

This is a translation of the claims made in the post above:

1. "3rd gen. tank - 350 in number; They are encircled by an enemy zone. You can turn an enemy zone up to 4 kilometers (3 miles) into ashes."

2. "Rocket launchers - 300 in number; You can shoot up to 30 rockets at a time. They will be used to destroy enemy strongholds."

3. "Cannon - They are 580 and can range from 25 kilometers to 30 kilometers."

4. "Air defense - capable of tracking down 1,000 fighter jets entering the Tigray region."

5. "Small missile (PCL 191) - The number I mentioned at another time; Those Chinese routes can travel up to 536 kilometers. These devices are 98.9% accurate because they are automatic. If all eight were to land in Addis Ababa at once, they will completely destroy Addis Ababa and its environs."

6. "Medium and advanced missiles - I'll tell you about them after the victory."

"And it's almost like you don't think the war has started. The invasion of the invaders."

DW fact check:

Misleading. The US provided Ethiopia with weapons during the "period the TPLF were in charge as part of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition," says the Atlantic Council's Hudson. Some of those US-made weapons may well be in the hands of the TPLF, but the numbers are likely to be exaggerated. "I suspect that some of those numbers are overblown. Especially now that TPLF had to abandon Mekele, it is hard to imagine they were able to take all their materiel with them in retreat," said Hudson.

According to a Reuters news story, quoting Janes, "Tigray had several S-75 and S-125 surface-to-air missile systems, primarily used for air defense, before fighting broke out."

Kate Hairsine Australian-born journalist and senior editor who mainly focuses on Africa.