By Jonathan Spicer, Giulia Paravicini and Orhan Coskun
ISTANBUL / ADDIS-ABEBA (Reuters) – US officials have challenged Turkey over its sales of armed drones to Ethiopia, where two sources familiar with the matter said there was growing evidence the government had used these weapons against rebel fighters.
Washington has “deep humanitarian concerns” about the sales, which could contravene US restrictions on arms to Addis Ababa, a senior Western official said.
The year-long war between the Ethiopian government and the leaders of the northern Tigray region, among Africa’s bloodiest conflicts, has killed thousands of civilians and displaced millions of people.
A State Department spokesperson said that the US envoy to the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, “cited reports of the use of armed drones in Ethiopia and the associated risk of civilian damage “during a visit to Turkey last week.
A senior Turkish official said Washington had expressed unease in a few meetings, while the Ethiopian military and government had not responded to detailed requests for comment.
Turkey, which sells drones to several countries in Europe, Africa and Asia, has dismissed criticism that it is playing a destabilizing role in Africa and said it is in contact with all parties in Ethiopia. to urge negotiations.
Last week, the United Nations agreed to set up an independent inquiry into Ethiopia’s rights violations, a move strongly opposed by its government.
Tigrayan rebel forces said on Monday they were withdrawing from parts of the north after government advances and, in a letter to the UN, called for a no-fly zone for drones and other unfriendly aircraft. above Tigray.
The US State Department cracked down on exports of defense products for the Ethiopian armed forces in May.
In September, the White House authorized sanctions against those engaged, even indirectly, in policies that threaten stability, extend the crisis or disrupt humanitarian aid in that country, although there has been no indication of such imminent action against Turkey.
The US Treasury, which has broad economic sanctions powers under the executive order, declined to comment on whether sanctions could apply to Turkey.
The senior Turkish official said the Foreign Ministry has examined the impact of drone sales on U.S. foreign policy as part of the 2022 budget planning.
“The United States has expressed unease over Turkey’s drone sales (…) but Turkey will continue to follow the policies it has established in this area,” the person told Reuters.
A second senior Turkish official from the Defense Ministry said Ankara had no intention of meddling in the internal affairs of any country.
Turkish defense exports to Ethiopia have jumped to nearly $ 95 million in the first 11 months of 2021, from virtually nothing last year, according to data from the Exporters’ Assembly.
DRONES IN ACTION
Ethiopian government soldiers interviewed by Reuters near Gashena, a hillside town close to the war front, said a recent government offensive was successful following an influx of reinforcements and the use drones and air strikes to target the Tigrayan positions.
A Reuters team spotted destroyed tanks and anti-aircraft armored trucks there.
A foreign military official based in Ethiopia said satellite imagery and other evidence gave “clear indications” that drones were being used, and that up to 20 of them were operating. It was not known how many could be of Turkish manufacture.
âSurveillance drones have a greater impactâ¦ and are very useful,â the person said, adding that the guerrilla nature of the conflict made armed drones less useful.
When asked if foreign countries had also provided drone operators, the official said, “I know Turkish personnel were here at one point.”
Turkish and Ethiopian officials have not publicly confirmed the sale of drones, which Reuters first reported in October, and Turkey’s Foreign Ministry has not responded to a request for further details.
He said last week that US envoy Feltman and Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal discussed developments in Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan.
Ethiopia has also purchased drones from the United Arab Emirates, which did not respond to a request for comment on possible US concerns. Feltman was also due to visit the United Arab Emirates earlier this month.
Under President Tayyip Erdogan, Ankara dumped military materiel in Africa and the Middle East, including the training of armed forces in Somalia, where it has a base.
The Turkish military used its Bayraktar TB2 drones last year successfully in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, sparking the interest of buyers around the world in a market led by US, Chinese and Israeli manufacturers.
In October, a spokesman for the Turkish Foreign Ministry said Ethiopia was free to source drones from anywhere. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last week that engagement with Africa is based on mutual benefits.
NATO allies Washington and Ankara have strained relations over several issues, including Turkey’s purchase of Russian missile defenses and US support for Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.
The State Department spokesman said Feltman stressed that “the time has come for all outside actors to press for negotiations and end the war” in Ethiopia.
The Western official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Ankara had responded to US concerns by saying it attached humanitarian provisions to the Ethiopia agreement and demanded signed commitments describing how drones will be used.
(Additional reports by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay in Ankara, Stephen Gray in Gashena, Ethiopia, Humeyra Pamuk and Daphne Psaledakis in Washington, and Katharine Houreld in Nairobi; edited by John Stonestreet)