NAIROBI (Reuters) - Ethiopia said on Wednesday peacekeepers from its Tigray region serving in Somalia had been disarmed over a security issue, raising concerns over the forces’ ability to fight al Qaeda-linked militants.
Diplomatic and security sources said earlier that between 200 and 300 Tigrayans had had their weapons removed.
Ethiopian troops began fighting forces from the northern region of Tigray earlier this month after what the government described as a surprise attack by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) on colleagues stationed there.
Ethiopia’s military, which is regarded as the most effective in the Horn of Africa, plays a big role in an African Union (AU) peacekeeping force in Somalia and has also sent troops bilaterally.
The disarmament of some of those troops could weaken the forces’ ability to fight the Islamist al Shabaab insurgency as Somalia prepares to hold parliamentary elections next month and presidential elections in February, experts say. U.S. President Donald Trump is also considering pulling out hundreds of U.S. troops before January.
“What do you do when you’re a force commander and you find you have 200 or 300 soldiers who can’t go into battle because of their ethnicity?” a security source told Reuters.
Tigray’s leaders have said Ethiopia’s government is biased against the region, a charge the government has repeatedly denied.
“The peacekeepers are not being disarmed due to ethnicity but due to infiltration of TPLF elements in various entities which is part of an ongoing investigation,” said a text message to Reuters from the State of Emergency Taskforce, a body set up to deal with the Tigray conflict. No further information was given.
Earlier, four diplomatic and security sources told Reuters those disarmed included bilateral and AU troops.
The disarmed men were believed to be confined to their bases in Somalia, according to two diplomatic sources. They include a deputy commander in one of the military sectors, the security source said.
The AU peacekeeping force did not respond to calls and messages for comment.
Ethiopia, which shares a long and porous border with Somalia, contributes around 4,000 of the 17,000 troops under the AU, and has around 15,000 additional soldiers in Somalia bilaterally: that is more than any other nation.
Ethiopia had also withdrawn a small number of troops stationed in Somalia bilaterally, three sources told Reuters, but had decided against large-scale withdrawals. The government did not respond to requests for comment on the assertion. Last week, a spokesman for the taskforce said the offensive in Tigray would not lead Ethiopia to withdraw peacekeepers abroad.
It was not clear whether the soldiers reportedly pulled out were Tigrayan or other troops destined for possible redeployment on the government side in Tigray.
Earlier this month, the African Union fired its security head Gebreegziabher Mebratu Melese, a Tigrayan, after Ethiopia’s defence ministry expressed concerns about him.
U.S. troops have already withdrawn from two bases in Somalia last month, and Trump is mulling pulling out most of the rest.
Many of the 700 or so U.S. forces in Somalia train and support Danab, the Somali special forces trained to hunt and kill senior leaders in the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab insurgency.
Al Shabaab has carried out deadly attacks on civilians throughout the East African region, including an attack on a U.S. military base in Kenya that killed three Americans earlier this year. Danab, which is around 850 soldiers currently but planned to grow to around 3,000, is Somalia’s most effective fighting force.
Editing by Philippa Fletcher and Alexandra Zavis
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