Up to 550 ethnic Tigrayan soldiers serving as UN peacekeepers in Abyei, a contested area on Sudan's border with South Sudan, refuse to go to Ethiopia fearing reprisals, say officials working in refugee response.

Tigrayan peacekeepers serving in UN missions in Sudan's Darfur have previously sought asylum.
Tigrayan peacekeepers serving in UN missions in Sudan's Darfur have previously sought asylum. (AFP Archive)

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 has said.

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 the Reuters news agency on condition of anonymity on Tuesday. 

Ethiopian government spokesperson Legesse Tulu and military spokesman Colonel Getnet Adane did not immediately respond to the Reuters' request for comment on the soldiers seeking asylum. Nor did spokespeople for the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, or 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.

READ MORE: Ethiopia announces 'indefinite humanitarian truce' to allow aid into Tigray

Tigray fight

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

Ethiopia's government considers Tigrayan fighters as militias and denies targeting any ethnic group, saying they target suspected TPLF and its supporters. 

UN and human rights groups have expressed their concerns about conditions in the country after war erupted in the Tigray region in November 2020.

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.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have said previously that Tigrayans had been targeted in "a relentless campaign of ethnic cleansing" in the long-contested western Tigray region. Addis Ababa denies the charge.

READ MORE: UN aid arrives in Ethiopia's Tigray region

Source: TRTWorld and agencies