A statement from the Eritrean embassy to the UK and Ireland issued on February 28, 2024, says the border areas have been under the control of Eritrean troops since the two-year northern Ethiopia conflict that ended in late 2022.

The Eritrean government maintains that Badme and other disputed territories on the northernmost tip of Ethiopia are Eritrean territory under the Algiers Agreement. The statement refers to them as “sovereign Eritrean territories that the TPLF had illegally occupied for two decades with impunity.”

Although senior Ethiopian government officials, including Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD), had initially denied reports of Eritrean involvement in the two-year war, they later admitted the Eritrean military had assisted the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) during the conflict.

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Following the end of the war and the signing of the Pretoria Agreement signed in November 2022, Eritrean forces reportedly refused to withdraw from parts of Tigray they occupied during the war.

Officials of the Tigray Interim Administration (TIA), including its head Getachew Reda, have long been complaining to the federal government and the international community that Eritrean troops have continued to inflict human rights abuses in the occupied areas.

The TIA has repeatedly called for the federal government to free these areas from Eritrean occupation. The Pretoria Agreement also stipulates that all forces except the ENDF are to leave Tigray.

However, the latest statement from the Eritrean embassy to the UK denies the disputed areas belong to Tigray at all.

“Eritrean troops are otherwise inside Eritrean sovereign territories with no presence in Ethiopian sovereign land,” reads the statement.

Neither the federal government nor the TIA have replied to the statement. Other than laying blame on the TPLF for a range of problems, the statement does not provide any hints as to its timing. 

On February 28, Ilze Brands Kehris, the UN assistant secretary-general for Human Rights, told the UN Human Rights Council, that her office “has credible information that the Eritrean Defense Force remains in Tigray and continues to commit cross-border violations, namely abductions, rape, looting of property, arbitrary arrest and other violations of physical integrity.”

She also told the Council there is no independent investigation and accountability for the atrocities orchestrated since the conflict broke-out in northern Ethiopia in November 2020. 

“The EDF continuing its presence in the Tigray region is contrary to the CoHA signed in November 2022 that called for the withdrawal of international forces from Ethiopia territory,” she said.

Exactly one year ago, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki downplayed allegations of Eritrean presence in Tigray.

“You talk about the withdrawal or otherwise of Eritrean troops. It is nonsense. Why are you bothered about Eritrean troops who are there or not there, who come out or do not come out?” Isaias asked during a press briefing in Nairobi.

The embassy statement argues that Badme and other territories, which the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) claims, rightfully belong to Eritrea. It reads the territories were occupied for nearly twenty years in “clear violation” of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) award of April 2002.

The disputed territories were at the root of the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea between 1998 and 2000. The fighting began with disputes over the control of Badme, a border town, and concluded two years later. It took a further six months for the signing of the Algiers Agreement, which established the EEBC to resolve the differences between the two nations.

The Algiers Agreement, signed on 18 June 2000, reaffirmed a previously agreed-upon cessation of hostilities. It stipulated the establishment of three commissions, and both countries initially pledged to wholeheartedly accept the decision as soon as it was officially announced.

In 2003, both Ethiopia and Eritrea disagreed on a ruling regarding disputed territories. However, Ethiopia later accepted the ruling “in principle” in 2004, but there were no further developments for more than a decade following the decision.

In 2018, Ethiopia underwent a political transition, and the new leadership under Abiy Ahmed fully accepted the Algiers Agreement and the Commission’s ruling, which granted disputed territories, including Badme, to Eritrea. It was part of a peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea then hailed as “historic.”

However, that was before war broke out in Tigray.

Since 2022, the TIA and others, including the international community, have accused the Eritrean government of exerting control over various parts of Tigray. The TIA maintains that Eritrean troops continue to hold a strong presence in several woredas and kebeles in Tigray.

The TIA has previously stated it is unable to fully assume administrative control of Tigray as a significant portion of the region is still under the influence of Eritrean forces and other informal groups.

Redae Halefom, head of communications for TIA, said the failure to implement the Pretoria Agreement has led to ongoing hardships and loss of life in the region during a press briefing on February 27, 2024.

“The Tigray Interim Administration, the federal government, and the international community are currently in discussions to ensure that the entire agreement is implemented,” said Redae.      

However, the statement from the Eritrean embassy rebukes what it calls the ‘manipulation of terminology’ on the side of TPLF in implementing the Pretoria Agreement. The statement criticizes a recent announcement from TPLF of retaining its ‘270,000 troops’ as evidence of what it claims is convoluted rhetoric.

The statement implies the TPLF and its supporters are resorting to blaming Eritrea and its troops for the hardships facing Tigray.

The statement has drawn incredulous responses from opposition political figures in Tigray.

Alula Hailu, president of the Salsay Weyane Tigray (SAWET) party, called the Eritrean statement a “joke.”

He argues that if the areas currently under Eritrean control truly belong to it, it would be much easier for the country to adhere to the principles and plans outlined in the Algiers Agreement.

“The crucial aspect to consider here is how they gained control over these areas and how they are managing them,” Alula said. “The process of demarcating the lands remains vague, as they have taken control of a significant amount of land that the Algiers Agreement initially granted them following the investigation by the Commission.”

The statement from the Eritrean government comes on the heels of a recent announcement from the Tigray Region Communications Bureau regarding plans for discussions between the signatories of the Pretoria Agreement in the coming weeks.

“Using peaceful, democratic, and political means to work towards the return of the people of Tigray is crucial,” said Redae.