A week ago I published a report on the return of around 800 Ethiopian rebels to Ethiopia, from neighbouring Eritrea.
Now the Ethiopian government has published its own take on the story – and distributed the information via Ethiopian embassies.
Here it is.
The leader of the opposition Tigray People’s Democratic Movement (TPDM, Demhit), Mola Asgedom, and nearly eight hundred fighters, previously in Eritrea, fought their way out of Eritrea and into Sudan on Friday last week (September 11) before crossing into Ethiopia. The fighters had gathered at Gulje, a town near the Sudan border, but had to fight their way through three Eritrean brigades in order to cross the border and reach the Sudanese town of Hamdait. After being assisted by the Sudanese Armed Forces, which made certain that Eritrean army units did not pursue the TPDM fighters into the Sudan, they were able to cross into Ethiopia where they now are.
Following the arrival of the TPDM leader and fighters, the Joint Counter-Terrorism Force of Ethiopian Federal Police and National Intelligence and Security Service issued a statement on Sunday explaining that the arrival of the TPDM leader and the fighters was the culmination of a clandestine operation it had conducted with a force that was being supported by the Eritrean Government for subversive ends against Ethiopia’s interests. The successful conclusion of the operation, said the statement, came with the flight of the TPDM from Eritrea and the subsequent entry of the force with its arms into Ethiopia on September 12. The statement said covert contacts between the National Intelligence and Security Service and members of the TPDM in Eritrea had been going on for over a year. This had helped the group understand the anti-Ethiopian agenda of the Eritrean Government and forces that were organized under it. The members of the TPDM were also able to see the progress being made in development and the concomitant changes in Ethiopia. They eventually realized that they did not want to be an instrument for the agenda of subversive groups aiming to destabilize Ethiopia’s development and democracy. The force, therefore, decided to return home and opened communications with the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS).
The statement said Mola Asgedom, Chairman of the TPDM, had convinced “other patriotic friends” to abandon the Eritrean Government’s anti-Ethiopian effort and organize their return to Ethiopia. Originally, Mola Asgedom and the others were eager to return immediately to Ethiopia once they had become convinced about Eritrea’s plans, but they agreed to stay to help to secretly thwart Eritrean activities and only leave when the NISS decided the time was ripe. During this period of over a year the members of the TPDM played an important role in informing Ethiopia about Eritrean Government’s plans and missions and their information allowed the NISS to take precautionary measures to prevent or deal with infiltration from Eritrea.
The idea of delaying their leaving Eritrea was also part of a project to embarrass Eritrea and Ethiopian opposition groups based there. This involved encouraging the Chairman of Ginbot 7, Berhanu Nega, to come to Asmara to lead “a united army” of Ethiopian opposition groups. Last week these groups declared a united “Salvation Front” to be headed by Berhanu Nega as Chairman and Mola Asgedom as his deputy. The merger, which included the TPDM, was celebrated with much enthusiasm in Asmara and among Ethiopia Diaspora opposition elements. Immediately afterwards, the TPDM abandoned “the anti-Ethiopia conspiracy”, effectively dissolving the supposed “salvation front.”
At this point, the NISS statement said, the plan ran into a problem. The original intention was that Mola and the 800 fighters of the TPDM should come directly into Ethiopia through Humera, but the secret was leaked to the Eritrean Government. Communications with the Ethiopian government were disrupted and Mola and his group were forced to change their plan and take a different route to leave Eritrea. The Eritrean Government made a desperate attempt to stop the fighters leaving, moving several units from the border area to block the escape, but the TPDM overran these forces around Om Hajer and Suq Alketir and fought its way out to Hamdait in Sudan in two groups. One group of 400 crossed first, followed by Mola and another 300 later. At the same time, another hundred TPDM fighters had opened a third front as a diversionary tactic and subsequently crossed directly to the Ethiopian town of Humera. The number of casualties on either side is unknown. Other elements of the TPDM scattered across Eritrea have also continued to arrive across the border. The statement noted that some elements of TPDM that had been unable to get out of Eritrea are either prisoners, members of artistic troupes or those who were sick.
The statement concluded by indicating that officials of the Tigray and Amhara Regional states, as well as the defense forces, had participated actively in the success of the operation from the outset. It also expressed the greatest appreciation to the Government of Sudan for protecting the combatants from attack by Eritrean soldiers inside Sudan, providing food and shelter as well as medical treatment for the wounded. It also helped them reach Ethiopia by providing transport to the Ethiopian border. It thanked the Sudanese Government on behalf of the Ethiopian people and government “for its historic and unforgettable assistance in bringing the group to Ethiopia without sustaining harm.”
The return of Mola Asgedom and the TPDM fighters, and the details already provided by Mola in statements to the press, makes very clear that the Eritrean Government has been deeply involved in violations of the UN sanctions on Eritrea, imposed for arming rebel groups from neighboring countries. The latest report of the UN Monitoring Group noted that it had obtained “testimonials and evidence that Eritrea continues to support armed opposition groups from neighboring countries, notably the following in Somalia and Ethiopia: The Ogaden National Liberation Front, the Tigray People’s Democratic Movement and Ginbot Sebat (7).” The Monitoring Group’s report pointed out that the Security Council “had specifically prohibited “Eritrea from harboring, financing, facilitating, supporting, organizing, training, or inciting individuals or groups to perpetrate acts of violence or terrorist acts against other States or their citizens in the region.”
In interviews at the beginning of the week, Mola Asgedom made it very clear that the Eritrean Government’s main intention was destabilizing and dismembering Ethiopia and that was why it had been arming and training the TPDM. This was also why it was also trying to arm and train other groups, though its efforts to organize Ethiopian rebels have not been as effective as it might have been as the flight of the TPDM from the latest effort to organize a united front of opposition groups showed.
The flight of the TPDM fighters from Eritrea, including many of the group’s military leadership, is a double blow to President Isaias. It is highly embarrassing because it suggests that Asmara’s much publicized unification of several Ethiopian opposition groups is no more than a figment of the imagination. It is also a serious embarrassment to the Chairman of Ginbot 7, US Professor Berhanu Nega, who is currently on sabbatical leave from Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. Heading an organization devoted to the violent overthrow of a government closely allied to the United States is a surprising activity for a sabbatical, even for a professor of political science. It certainly shows an unusual interest in the depth of his research.
Dr Berhanu came to Asmara in July to lead the process when what Ginbot 7’s ESAT TV station called “the final push to unseat the EPRDF government had been started”. This aim was also apparently previewed by Eritrea’s Ministry of Information while the negotiations for this united Ethiopian front were in progress. It issued a statement alleging that “War-like rhetoric from Ethiopia’s main party in the ruling coalition, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, had increased….The TPLF’s sabre-rattling has been a common staple throughout winter. And this has been ratcheted up in the past few weeks.” said the statement. This appears to have been intended as an explanation of the expected activity by the united front, underlined by the front’s claims that “unification of these major armed opposition forces is going to be a game changer in the ongoing struggle for democracy, unity and equality in Ethiopia.”
Professor Berhanu was elected chairman of the unified organization with Mola Asgedom, the chair of the TPDM, as his deputy. With Mola leaving within less than a week, the presence of the TPDM in this new Eritrean-organized [organization] will be minimal. There were in fact reports earlier in the year that a considerable number of leading members of the two organizations merged in the Arbegnoch-Ginbot7 for Unity and Democracy Movement set up in January. Nearly a dozen senior members in both organizations were said to have been arrested by Eritrean security after they resisted the joining of these two organizations. This has been a common factor among the armed Ethiopian opposition movements based in Eritrea when Eritrea has pressurized them to unite or carry out operations of which they disapprove. The Ogaden National Liberation Front lost a number of its central committee members in 2013 after a congress in Asmara, and the much divided Oromo Liberation Front has suffered from similar problems. The Ethiopian Patriotic People’s Party has been the worst affected and many of its leaders have disappeared in Asmara or elsewhere in Eritrea over the years when they objected to President Isaias’ aims.
The defection of the TPDM from Eritrea will also be taken as an insult personally by President Isaias. He has, in the last two or three years, been coming to rely more and more on TPDM fighters as his distrust of his own forces grew. Indeed, after the attempted coup in Asmara in January 2013, when the Ministry of Information building was briefly occupied by dissident Eritrean troops, President Isaias, apparently distrusting his own forces, brought in hundreds of TPDM fighters to deal with some of the more important aspects of security in Asmara. The TPDM, much to the disgust of the Eritrean population, was also being used extensively in the highly unpopular task of searching for conscripts who had fled from their units or people who were trying to escape conscription. According to some reports, the President had even decided recently to put the TPDM in charge of the infamous Eiraeiro prison complex where the G15 are kept.
In an attempt to try to minimize the damage of this incident and the escape of the TPDM leader and most of its fighters, Eritrea put up the TPDM Deputy Chairman, Mekonen Tesfay, who remained in Asmara, to claim that the numbers, motives and facts behind the defection are exaggerated and propaganda. He claimed that Mola Asgedom had been heavily criticized for lack of leadership and capacity at the last TPDM executive meeting and that the executive committee had rejected him as a leader for the united front. This was why Mola had fled. He had taken no more than a handful of fighters with him and there had been no fighting with Eritrean army units, rather implausibly suggesting that “there were no Eritrean forces in the area as this happened to areas closer to the Sudanese border.” In fact, Mekonnen even claimed the whole incident was a blessing in disguise: “Now that the main obstacle towards the unification and overall struggle against the Ethiopian regime is gone, the struggle will continue in full force and TPDM will join the Coalition movement with all of its fighters.” He gave no indication of the strength that remained to the TPDM.
While some elements still remain unclear, or classified, the whole episode has underlined a point that Ethiopia has constantly repeated in the last few years. It is not time to relax UN sanctions on Eritrea. Eritrea is still continuing to implement policies in defiance of the UN Security Council. It has made no effort to change its policy of destabilization of its neighbors nor its assumption that aggression and belligerence are necessary elements to a foreign policy. It also underlines that the statements of Eritrean officials indicating or even promising a change in policy should not be accepted without concrete evidence of a change. Over the last year or so, for example, Eritrean officials have indicated that the open-ended national service conscription, which has in some cases lasted for nearly twenty years, had changed and conscription would be limited to the original 18 months. Some suggested this might indicate a change in Eritrea’s aggressive posture. Despite these comments, even promises, there has, in fact, been absolutely no change on the ground. Nor has there been any indication that there will be.