Thousands of Eritrean soldiers, who fought against Tigray forces in support of Ethiopia's federal government during its two-year civil war in the northern Tigray region, have started pulling out of major towns in central and western Tigray.
Eyewitness told The EastAfrican that dozens of trucks carrying Eritrean soldiers have left Axum and Shire cities, heading towards the border with Eritrea.
“Yesterday, we have counted as many as 30 trucks packed with Eritrean soldiers heading towards the border town of Sheraro,” Belay Tsehaye told The EastAfrican from the town of Shire.
Another resident of Shire, Tewelde Hagos, similarly confirmed witnessing the withdrawal of the Eritrean soldiers in several heavy trucks.
“They were coming from the direction of Axum and passed through Shire city heading towards the Eritrean border,” he said.
The withdrawals follow a November 2 peace accord signed by Ethiopia's federal government and Tigray regional party, Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which requires the removal of foreign troops and non-federal forces from Tigray.
Eritrea, however, was not a party to the deal, and its troops' continued presence in Tigray has been raising questions about the durability of the African Union-brokered fragile peace agreement.
It was not immediately clear if the Eritrean troops were leaving Tigray entirely or just pulling back from territories of the region.
However, one aid worker in Shire told Reuters that the departing Eritrean soldiers were waving goodbye as the trucks drove by.
Professor Kindeya Gebrehiwot, representative of Tigray government External Affairs Office, did not immediately respond to The EastAfrican’s requests for comment.
Neither the Ethiopian government nor the TPLF have said anything about the withdrawal of the Eritrean army.
The Eritrean army, which was active in the two-year war in northern Ethiopia, has been accused of committing large-scale atrocities, including sexual assaults, summary killings, rapes, looting towns and destroying infrastructure.
Following the Pretoria Peace Agreement, Tigray authorities have been accusing the Eritrean government of trying to obstruct the peace process and have been urging the Ethiopian government to comply with terms of the peace accord in withdrawing the foreign and non-federal forces.
Speaking to The EastAfrican, Mr Sumur Tsehaye, a local political commentator, says the withdrawal of Eritrean forces is a crucial step for the implementation and sustainability of the peace agreement.
However, he said, their exit has to be monitored carefully.
“The AU Monitoring and Verification Compliance team has to confirm the entire withdrawal of Eritrean forces from all parts of Tigray,” he said. “Seeing the foreign forces leave could also assure the people of Tigray that the peace agreement was a genuine one.”
The conflict in Tigray broke out in November 2020 between Ethiopian federal government forces and the TPLF, lasting two years in which it claimed the lives of more than half a million people and many others were displaced from their homes.