Khartoum, Sudan

Up to 550 Ethiopian peacekeepers working in Sudan have sought asylum rather than return home for fear they will be persecuted due to their Tigrayan ethnicity, an official with direct knowledge of the plan said on Tuesday.

The soldiers, numbering between 525 to 550, were part of a UN peacekeeping force working in Abyei, a contested oil-rich area on Sudan's border with South Sudan, the official working in refugee response told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Ethiopia Humera tank

Cows walk past a tank damaged in fighting between Ethiopian Government and Tigray forces, near the town of Humera, Ethiopia, on 3rd March, 2021. PICTURE: Reuters/File photo.

Ethiopian Government spokesperson Legesse Tulu and military spokesman Col. Getnet Adane did not immediately respond to Reuters' request for comment on the soldiers seeking asylum. Nor did spokespeople for the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, nor the UN peacekeeping office.

The official said that the soldiers were at the peacekeeping mission's rear base in Kadugli in South Kordofan and that UNHCR was planning to move them to one fenced camp near a refugee camp for Eritreans in Sudan's Gadaref state. 

Thousands of Tigrayans, including civilians and soldiers, were imprisoned in squalid conditions in Ethiopia without charge after war erupted in the Tigray region in November 2020. 

The fighting pits Ethiopia's government and its allies against rebellious Tigrayan forces loyal to the Tigray People's Liberation Front, a political party that once dominated national politics and now controls the Tigray region.

Since the fighting started, rights groups have said ethnic Tigrayans have been repeatedly detained without trial. The state-appointed rights commission said last year thousands of ethnic Tigrayans were detained, including very elderly people, nursing mothers and babies. At the time, police denied targeting any ethnic group, saying they targeted suspected TPLF supporters.

The United Nations has said at least 15,000 Tigrayan civilians were arrested or imprisoned across Ethiopia under the state of emergency declared in November and lifted in February. 

At the beginning of the conflict, Tigrayan police and soldiers were disarmed and put in secure areas. It is not clear if they have been released. 

Tigrayan peacekeepers serving in UN missions in Darfur have previously sought asylum.

The government has repeatedly said it is fighting against the TPLF and not Tigrayans in general.

- With HEREWARD HOLLAND in Nairobi, Kenya.