* Online clips of Ethiopian general, mayor on social media
* Ethiopia, Eritrea have denied Eritrean troops in Tigray
* A dozen witnesses have said Eritreans are present
NAIROBI, Jan 7 (Reuters) – A senior Ethiopian general said in a video clip posted on social media this week that Eritrean troops had entered the country uninvited while his soldiers were battling a rebellious force in the northern region of Tigray.
The video, whose authenticity Reuters could not independently verify, shows Major General Belay Seyoum addressing a meeting in the Tigrayan capital Mekelle in late December.
“An army that we don’t want has entered. Are we the one that invited them? No,” he said. “They just entered by themselves, and this has to be made clear.”
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s spokeswoman, the head of Ethiopia’s emergency taskforce on Tigray and a military spokesman did not respond to questions about the footage. Neither did Eritrea’s information minister, Yemane Meskel.
Belay’s comments could alarm Western allies concerned that such an incursion might aggravate a conflict in Tigray that has already killed thousands.
Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a peace pact ending two decades of hostilities in 2018 and now regard the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) as a mutual foe.
Both nations have denied any involvement by Eritrean troops inside Tigray, but the U.S. State Department said last month it believed reports of their presence were credible.
A clip of Belay talking about other issues at a meeting in Mekelle was posted on a Facebook page run by the administration of Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa on Dec. 25. The backdrop and position of eight microphones in that clip of Belay matched the video of the general circulating on social media this week.
“My conscience doesn’t allow me to ask the Eritrean army to help us,” Belay said in the new clip. “We should solve our internal problems by ourselves.”
‘WORKING TO MAKE THEM LEAVE’
The TPLF, the former ruling party in Tigray, has accused Eritrea of deploying troops in support of Abiy’s military campaign in the region. It has fired rockets into Eritrea at least four times since the conflict erupted on Nov. 4.
The conflicting accounts are difficult to verify as most communications to Tigray went down on Nov. 4. Some phone lines have been restored in recent weeks, but the government still tightly controls access to the region.
In another video posted on social media this week, Ataklti Haileselassie, the new government-appointed mayor of Mekelle, appears to discuss Eritrean troops entering Tigray.
“They entered because the military command that was most capable of protecting the area was attacked from behind,” Ataklti said in the video broadcast by state-run Tigray TV. “The government is working to make them leave this area quickly.”
Ataklti confirmed to Reuters that he was speaking in the video but declined to say whether the troops he referred to were Eritrean. He said General Belay had already addressed that question.
Mulu Nega, interim head of Tigray appointed by the federal government, declined to comment.
Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous nation and a diplomatic heavyweight that hosts the African Union. Eritrea has never held elections, has no independent media and forces its citizens into indefinite government service.
The war in Tigray is believed to have killed thousands of people and sent more than 56,000 fleeing to Sudan. Abiy declared victory at the end of November but the TPLF vowed to fight on.
(Reporting by Nairobi newsroom; Editing by David Clarke)
(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2021. Click For Restrictions – https://agency.reuters.com/en/copyright.html