Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has announced that neighboring Eritrea would pull its troops out of the conflict-ridden Tigray region.
Abiy's statement on Friday followed a visit to Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. Troops from both the Ethiopian and Eritrean military forces have been accused of carrying out abuses against the civilian population in the border region.
In his statement published on Twitter, Abiy said that following his discussions on Friday with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, "the government of Eritrea has agreed to withdraw its forces out of the Ethiopian border."
Abiy first acknowledged the presence of Eritrean forces in the region on Tuesday after months of rejecting reports from residents, diplomats and even some military officials.
"It puts the participation of Eritrean forces in the conflict out into the open now. The government is saying there an agreement for those Eritrean forces to retreat," says Horn of Africa researcher Ahmed Soliman from Chatham House.
"I think there has been mounting internal and external pressure to do something about the actions of Eritrean forces in northern, northwestern, and eastern Tigray," he told DW.
What were Eritrean troops doing in Tigray?
Abiy sent troops into Tigray on November 4, after accusing the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) of attacking an Ethiopian military camp.
The TPLF was once the dominant party in Ethiopia and carried out an extended war with neighboring Eritrea. Abiy brokered a peace deal with Asmara in 2018, an act for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Abiy has since been accused of siding with Eritrean forces to pursue the now fugitive leaders of the TPLF.
"Abiy and the federal government were looking to remove the TPLF and no longer considering them as a political party which to engage with,” Soliman says.
"The Eritrean government, which has no love lost for the TPLF, also considered it to be beneficial to them to help remove the TPLF from power in the region."
Witnesses have claimed that Eritrean troops were present in Tigray from the start of the conflict, contradicting Abiy's account.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both accused Eritrean soldiers of carrying out a massacre of hundreds of Tigrayans in the town of Axum.
Ethiopian forces have also been accused of abuses. Doctors Without Borders claimed that soldiers had carried out summary executions in Tigray.
Some 6 million people in the Tigray region have been largely cut off from the world during the conflict. The UN human rights office said it was only recently allowed back in to support investigations into human rights abuses.
Refugee camps destroyed
Also on Friday, a United Nations team said it had reached two camps for Eritrean refugees in the Tigray region for the first time since November, finding them destroyed and deserted.
UN refugee agency spokesman Boris Cheshirkov told reporters in Geneva that a team had gained access to the Shimelba and Hitsats refugee camps, and "found both camps destroyed, and all the humanitarian facilities looted and vandalized."
Troop withdrawal could have 'major impact'
DW spoke to William Davison, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, an independent organization monitoring the fighting in Ethiopia.
Should Eritrean troops completely withdraw, Davison said the move could have "a major impact on the conflict dynamics," particularly with regards to forces loyal to the TPLF.
"It could lead to increased strengthening of the armed resistance in Tigray. And it is hard to imagine Ethiopia's federal government entirely crushing this rebellion if Eritrean troops withdraw," he said.
Although Abiy's announcement appears to indicate a willingness to end the conflict in Tigray, "there has been no sign of the [Ethiopian] government seeking a negotiated solution so far," the analyst added.
When asked about the UN reports that two refugee camps in Tigray have been destroyed, Davison said the reports verified what actors on the ground had previously reported.
"One of the problems of this conflict is verifying information," he said. "There's still a telecommunications blackout, almost a total Internet blackout across Tigray."
The fate of many of the refugees in the camps remains unknown, Davison said. "Some of them will be displaced into Tigray. Some of them seem to have been captured and taken back to Eritrea."
Biden pushes to end the conflict
Abiy claimed victory over the TPLF in December, but the United States and United Nations have both reported continued clashes.
The US has been calling on Eritrean troops to leave the area for weeks, and the Biden administration ramped up the pressure by dispatching Senator Chris Coons to Ethiopia nearly a week ago for talks with Abiy.
Soliman says pressure from important international partners seems to have "shifted Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's calculation and his posture, at least publicly" on Eritrea's continued presence in Tigray.
Abiy did not say how many Eritrean troops had been present in Tigray, but witnesses have estimated the number to be in the thousands.
The Ethiopian prime minister's statement concluded by promising to "continue strengthening [the] bilateral relations and economic cooperation ambitions" between Eritrea and Ethiopia, as well as "restoring trust-based people-to-people relations among our citizens in the Tigray region."
ab/msh (dpa, AP, AFP)