Johannesburg, South Africa — New satellite images have shed some light on the world’s most hidden conflict. The images released by Maxar Technologies appear to confirm that fighting in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region has resumed after a five-month humanitarian ceasefire.
Satellite images dated September 26 show what Maxar Technologies says are Ethiopian federal forces massed in the northwest town of Shiraro, along with troops from neighboring Eritrea, a close ally of Ethiopia’s federal government. Shiraro sits only about 10 miles from the Eritrean border.
The images come after recent reports of a military mobilization in Eritrea. On September 15, reports surfaced in the Eritrean capital Asmara that reservists up to the age of 55 had been called up for service. Local media said the reservists were told to bring their own supplies, including blankets, and given just hours to report to their local head offices.
Theon the Eritrean Defense Forces and the ruling PFDJ party over the country’s involvement in the Ethiopian conflict. It’s believed that Eritrean soldiers have fought alongside the Ethiopian army since civil war broke out in Tigray in 2020.
Eritrea, a militarized state, is already isolated diplomatically. President Isaias Afwerki considers the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) — the rebel group battling Ethiopia’s government, but based just across his country’s own border — as his enemy, too.
The town of Shiraro had been under control of the Tigrayan forces until earlier this month, but then word filtered out that Ethiopian troops had driven out the TPLF. The satellite images appear to confirm an offensive by Ethiopian forces, showing tanks and a line of what appears to be more than 100 soldiers in formation near a hospital on the eastern outskirts of the town.
Other images show what Maxar Technologies identifies as mobilizing forces and artillery positions just south of Shiraro and long lines of buses and military vehicles on the roads. Maxar also released four images from September 19 of heavy weaponry in the town of Serha, near the Tigray boarder. Maxar told CBS News the images show “main battle tanks, self-propelled howitzers and a M-46 field gun battery.”
It’s unclear, but shots were reportedly fired on the southern border of Tigray in the early morning hours of August 24 after five months of at least relative calm.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has cut off the Tigray region since the fighting broke out in 2020. All basic services, including phone and internet, banking and even health services have been cut off for some time.
Abiy has maintained tight control over the country’s media, and journalists are largely unable to visit Tigray. Many international journalists have been barred from entering Ethiopia or thrown out if they were already there. That’s made independently verified information on the conflict incredibly difficult to come by.
“We’ve been tracking Eritrean troops’ movement across the border,” U.S. Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa Mike Hammer told reporters during a briefing last week. “The presence of Eritrean troops in Ethiopia only serves to complicate matters and to inflame an already tragic situation.”
Neither the Ethiopian nor Eritrean governments have commented on the situation.
Hammer confirmed that he’d met representatives of the TPLF and the Ethiopian government in the Seychelles for talks, and he said there seemed to have been some agreement about restoring basic services to the region. The government cutting them off has had a devastating impact on the local population.
The TPLF has said no peace talks can take place until basic services are restored, and it calls the blockade of Tigray a war crime.
On August 2, Hammer, along with United Nations and European Union envoys, visited the Tigrayan regional capital of Mekelle and called for “unfettered humanitarian access” and a “swift restoration of electricity, telecom, banking and other basic services.”
The United Nations’ World Food Program (WFP) has said that while the ceasefire gave the charity an opportunity to reach some people, it was far short of the 4.8 million Tigrayans estimated to be in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.
“We just don’t know,” is a refrain echoed by many aid organizations recently, as they have not had access to Tigray, past sporadic convoys or very limited access.
There are no confirmed figures on how many people the war has left to die of hunger and related illnesses since it started in November of 2020, but an investigation carried out by a team of researchers led by Jan Nyssen of Ghent University in Belgium found the toll was likely at least 500,000.
The U.N. Human Rights Council’s International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia concluded in a report published on September 19 that Ethiopia’s government had committed crimes against humanity in the Tigray region, and that Tigryan forces had committed serious human rights abuses, adding that some amounted to war crimes.
“We have reasonable grounds to believe that the widespread denial and obstruction of access to basic services, food, health care, and humanitarian assistance amounts to the crime against humanity of persecution and inhumane acts,” said Karri Betty Murungi, one of the three U.N. investigators who compiled the report. “We also have reasonable grounds to believe that the federal government is committing the war crime of using starvation as a method of warfare.”