Eritrean Military Withdraws from 3 Tigray Towns Day After Cease-Fire Issued

Ethiopian and Eritrean troops withdrew from parts of Tigray a day after Tigray forces seized control of the regional capital and the Ethiopian government declared an immediate cease-fire.

Eritrean troops withdrew from the key Tigray region towns of Shire, Axum and Adwa, although the U.S. has seen no statement from Eritrea or Tigray troops confirming they were committed to the cease-fire. Whether the troops would be withdrawn permanently and where they were going remains unclear.

Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Godec told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on Tuesday that "we don't yet know if they are withdrawing."

There has been no confirmation if Eritrea has withdrawn from other towns in the Tigray area. Ethiopian forces have had a "significant withdrawal," according to Godec.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Ethiopia conflict
A destroyed tank sits by the side of a road leading to Abi Adi, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, on May 11, 2021. Ethiopia's government said in a statement carried by state media on June 28, 2021, that it has "positively accepted" a call for an immediate, unilateral cease-fire in its Tigray region after nearly eight months of deadly conflict. Ben Curtis, File/AP Photo

The swift turn in the nearly eight-month war has left people scrambling to understand the implications for the region of 6 million people as communications links were largely down. The people in close contact with witnesses who confirmed the withdrawal spoke on condition of anonymity for their safety.

The information ministry of Eritrea, described by human rights groups as one of the world's most repressive countries, did not immediately respond to questions.

Tigray's former leaders said they are now in control of the regional capital, Mekele, after "what appears to be a significant withdrawal of Ethiopian national defense forces from Tigray," Godec said.

The Tigray leaders, who have waged a guerrilla war since November after a political falling-out with the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, in a statement issued overnight called on supporters to "intensify their struggle until our enemies completely leave Tigray."

The spokesman for the Tigray forces, Getachew Reda, could not immediately be reached. An Ethiopian military spokesman did not answer the phone.

The arrival of Tigray forces in Mekele on Monday was met with cheers after the interim regional administration, appointed by Ethiopia's government, fled.

Tigray fighters then moved into Shire on Tuesday, their latest gain after some of the most intense fighting of the war in Africa's second-most populous country. Shire in recent months saw the arrival of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing intimidation in western Tigray and is a key staging area for humanitarian aid.

Tigray forces are now in control of much of the region after a major counteroffensive with mass popular support, International Crisis Group analyst William Davison said in a statement.

Preventing growing famine conditions in the region "has to be the priority of the TDF's leadership, given their forces are now in a position to facilitate access to many previously hard to reach areas," Davison said, urging Ethiopia's government not to sabotage the urgent humanitarian efforts.

Major questions remained about the fate of the more than 1 million civilians that the United Nations has said remain in parts of Tigray that have been hard, if not impossible, to reach with aid. The United States has said up to 900,000 people now face famine conditions, in the world's worst hunger crisis in a decade.

That famine "is entirely man-made," the acting U.S. assistant secretary of state said.

Sarah Charles, assistant to the administrator for the United States Agency for International Development, told the same hearing that the next week or two will be consequential. She urged Ethiopia to lift a "communications blackout" on Tigray and said forces from the neighboring Amhara region who have occupied western Tigray must lift checkpoints on key roads for aid delivery.

Ethiopia has said the cease-fire is in part for the delivery of aid but will last only until the end of the crucial planting season in Tigray—which is in September.

In Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, people said they weren't sure who to believe amid the battlefield claims, and hoped for peace.

"It's the innocent children, farmers and the poor people that are at the front of the war and are suffering," resident Biruk Dessalegn said.

Ethiopian refugees
People who fled the violence in Ethiopia's Tigray region rest in a classroom housing 25 mothers for more than seven months at an elementary school in Mekele, the capital of Tigray region, on June 18, 2021. The school turned into a camp for internally displaced people houses more than 2,000 people, mostly from Humura, a bordering town with Eritrea and Sudan. UN agencies say 350,000 people face famine conditions in Tigray, the northernmost region. Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images