Eritrean troops have left the ancient city of Axum in Tigray but remain in two other towns in the war-stricken Ethiopian region, local residents said Sunday, as the United States hailed a pullout seen as key to a landmark peace deal.
The Eritrean army had moved across the border into Tigray to support federal government forces against the region's dissident authorities in a conflict that erupted in November 2020 and has since killed untold numbers of civilians and set off a desperate humanitarian crisis.
A peace deal between the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) signed in South Africa's capital Pretoria in November last year silenced the guns in the north of Africa's second most populous state.
But Eritrea, whose troops have been accused by the United States and rights groups of some of the worst atrocities in the conflict -- including the massacre of hundreds of civilians in Axum -- was not a party to the agreement.
Witnesses told AFP on Sunday that Eritrean forces were no longer in the holy city, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its towering carved obelisks.
"I don't see any Eritrean soldiers at the moment in the city," one resident said. "They left... carrying dozens of artillery pieces, anti-aircraft guns and tanks."
Large movements of troops and armour have also been witnessed in recent days in the Tigrayan towns of Adwa and Shire, which lie on the same east-west road as Axum.
Three residents of Shire said they had seen large convoys of soldiers start leaving the town on Friday in buses and trucks, some carrying banners declaring "Game Over".
But locals said some troops remained on Sunday.
"I saw Eritrean soldiers patrolling in the town together with members of the Ethiopian National Defence Force," said one Shire resident.
"Eritrean forces are still present in substantial numbers, even though I have seen Eritrean troops stationed in other parts of the city leave in previous days," added a local woman in Adwa.
- 'Significant progress' -
The United States, and others in the West, have sought to pressure Eritrea to remove its troops, and Washington imposed sanctions targeting its armed forces as well as President Isaias Afwerki's political party.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke on Saturday of their "ongoing withdrawal" in a telephone call with Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 in part for his rapprochement with Eritrea.
Blinken called the withdrawal "significant progress" in the peace agreement.
"The Secretary welcomed this development, noting that it was key to securing a sustainable peace in northern Ethiopia, and urged access for international human rights monitors," State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
East African regional grouping IGAD, one of the peace process mediators, "welcomes every measure undertaken to ensure the smooth implementation of the agreement that will lead to permanent and sustainable peace in Ethiopia", its spokesman Nuur Mohamud Sheekh said in a message to AFP.
With access to Tigray restricted, it is impossible to independently verify the situation on the ground.
- Arch-enemies -
Under the Pretoria agreement, the TPLF agreed to disarm and re-establish the authority of the federal government in return for the restoration of access to Tigray, which was largely cut off from the outside world during the war and remains in dire need of food, medicines and fuel.
A subsequent deal sealed in Nairobi called for the disarmament to take place along with the pullout of foreign and non-ENDF forces, but there was no specific mention of Eritrea, one of the world's most closed-off countries whose regime considers the TPLF its arch-enemy.
The war broke out when Abiy accused the TPLF, which had dominated the government in Ethiopia for three decades until his rise, of attacking federal military facilities in Tigray.
Abiy unleashed a major offensive against the TPLF, which at one point in late 2021 had appeared close to advancing on the capital Addis Ababa before withdrawing to Tigray, one of several major shifts on the battlefield.
Addis Ababa and Asmara denied for months any Eritrean involvement in the conflict but Abiy admitted their presence in March 2021.
The departure of Eritrean troops has been announced several times before but never verified.
The exact toll of the war remains unknown, although the US has said as many as 500,000 people have lost their lives, while African Union envoy Olusegun Obasanjo told the Financial Times earlier this month that up to 600,000 may have been killed.
The International Crisis Group think tank and Amnesty International have described the conflict -- which has also displaced more than two million people and left millions more in need of aid -- as "one of the deadliest in the world"