Ex-UN Peacekeepers linked to TPLF Battle for Control of Humera, Ethiopia

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TPLF’s Ex-UN Peacekeepers from Sudan close to hotly contested Humera town in Ethiopia

Hundreds former UN peacekeepers in Sudan associated with the TPLF in Northern Ethiopia have joined the recent battle for a strategic town of Humera, according to a report by Blomberg, in the latest flareup of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray regional conflict.

The fighting has pitted Ethiopian forces against fighters loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), an armed insurgency dedicated to the overthrow of the elected government of Ethiopia. While a one-sided humanitarian truce kept the lid on recent fighting, fresh attacks by TPLF has forced the hand of Ethiopia’s armed forces, raising fears of a return to all-out war.

The strategic town of Humera, which lies at the intersection between Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan is highly valued by TPLF rebel forces who have dedicated significant resources to capture. Success in Humera would enable the TPLF to open up weapons-supply corridors to bolster its insurgency, and potentially allow it to launch an attack on Eritrea, a long-standing foe of the Tigray’s regional leadership.

Member of the Amhara special forces watching over the Tekeze river bridge, which connects Ethiopia’s town of Humera with Eritrea.

Following the surprise attack on Ethiopia’s northern command by the TPLF in November 2020, many TPLF members of the Ethiopian UN peacekeepers mission stationed in Abyei, refused to return to Ethiopia, fearing prosecution for their associations with the insurrection. The Ethiopian government has accused many of them of aiding TPLF’s insurrection. After abandoning their mission in Abyei, a border region contested by North Sudan and South Sudan, the Ex UN peacekeepers found refuge in Sudan, where they have since joined up with other TPLF insurgents.

According to Bloomberg, “the ex-peacekeepers, including hundreds of officer-level soldiers who were part of the Ethiopian army before joining the UN force, initially conducted operations on behalf of TPLF inside Sudan and have recently moved close to Humera in northwest Ethiopia”.

Since the coming to power of the Abiy government, Eritrea has been key ally of Ethiopia in the fight against TPLF, which is viewed as a national security threat by both Asmara and Addis Ababa. However, Sudan’s leaders in Khartoum have struck a different tone. They have largely been at odds with Ethiopia over the construction of a massive hydropower dam on the Nile River that originates in Ethiopia and traverses Sudan before ending up in Egypt. Many in Ethiopia believe recent Sudanese goading is proxy for downstream Egypt, which seeks to arm twist Ethiopia into a more favorable long term water sharing agreement on the Nile. The Ethiopians sincerely believe Cairo is sponsoring insurgents including the TPLF.

According to Getachew Reda, a member of the TPLF’s executive committee, the former UN peacekeepers had been stationed near refugee camps in eastern Sudan’s Al Qadarif region, preparing to enter the fight against the Ethiopian government and on behalf of the TPLF led region of Tigray.

However, according to Bloomberg, Brigadier Nabil Abdullah, spokesperson of the Sudanese Armed Forces, denied the presence of any Tigray rebel units or ex-UN peacekeeper in his country. A spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency and the peacekeepers in Sudan didn’t reply to questions. Ethiopia has accused Sudan of aiding and abetting TPLF insurgents disguised as refugees in UNHCR camps. The role of the UN in all of this is not clearly known. The general consensus among Ethiopian officials is that UN refugee camps in eastern Sudan have become incubation centers for TPLF fighters disguised as civilian evacuees.

The Ex-UN peacekeepers contingent has been joined by several Tigray fighters who fled during the war recently and some residents. According to Bloomberg, access to the region has been restricted and most communications have been cut off, making it difficult to verify what the unit has been doing or how effective it has been. 

Many TPLF members have been detained in prisons across Ethiopia since the civil war erupted in 2020. Prior to reforms undertaken by the Abiy Ahmed Administration, Ethiopia’s military had been unfairly structured whereby most senior positions were reserved for TPLF adherents. It is therefore not surprising to have the Ethiopian contingent of the UN peacekeepers mission in Sudan also be overwhelmingly from the Tigray region. Only a handful returned to Ethiopia after the conflict.

Sudan continues to play a destabilizing role in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray conflict. Many Tigray rebel fighters are being stationed, armed, and trained in eastern Sudan. TPLF plans to use these units to one day wrester control of the hotly contested Humera-welkait-Tsegede, strategic areas currently administered by Ethiopia’s Amhara regional government. Making things even more intractable is contending ethnic based claims to the region by both Amhara and Tigray leaders.

On August 26, 2022, Ethiopia’s air force chief said it shot down an arms-laden cargo plane while in route to the Tigray region. The Antonov 26 type cargo plane originated in Sudan, although the Sudanese have denied it. A few days prior, Ethiopia’s prime minster mentioned ‘they had “detailed intelligence of several nightly flights intended to arm the TPLF militants”. This latest assault by TPLF fighters stationed in Sudan is further indication of Sudan’s continued involvement in Ethiopia’s internal conflict perhaps on behalf of other bigger regional players.  

Ethiopia has thus far avoided direct entanglement with Sudan on the issue, choosing instead, to embark on a domestic law and order approach where quelling unrest at home is seen as more important, but given consistent flares up in the northwest and west, there will be political pressure at home to deal with destabilizing forces emanating from Sudan. This could potentially threaten to widen the scope of Ethiopia’s conflict. So far, the international community has failed to unequivocally condemn armed actors testing Ethiopia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed: “we have detailed information about foreign cargo flights coming from Sudan, and supplying TPLF armed militants”
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