Satellite imagery obtained by Al Jazeera has revealed that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has opened an air bridge to provide extensive military support to the Ethiopian government in its fight against forces from the northern Tigray region.
The investigation found that between September and November, there were more than 90 flights between the UAE and Ethiopia, with many intentionally concealing from where they took off and where they landed.
The UAE has carried out the extensive operation with the support of two private shipping companies: a Spanish firm which organised 54 military-support flights between the UAE and Ethiopia in less than a month, and a Ukrainian one which organised 39 military cargo flights in two months.
Flight charts and satellite images show aircraft recently arriving from Sweihan Base in Abu Dhabi, UAE, to Harar Meda base, just south of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.
The images show a Chinese-made Wing Loong drone, the first ever documented in Ethiopian military bases. They also show the offloading of military cargo from Ilyushin cargo aircraft.
The imagery also reveals that the Samara and Axum bases were inoperative following clashes with the Tigrayan forces, which said this week they were some 200km from Addis Ababa.
Much of northern Ethiopia is under a communications blackout and access for journalists is severely restricted, making battlefield claims difficult to verify.
Ethiopian state media said on Wednesday that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had gone to the front lines to lead the Ethiopian army against the Tigrayan forces.
After months of tension, Abiy in November 2020 sent troops to Tigray to remove the region’s governing party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF dominated the federal government for nearly three decades until Abiy took office in 2018.
The prime minister, a 2019 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, promised a swift victory. His troops seized Tigray’s capital, Mekelle, in late November but by June, the Tigrayan forces had retaken most of the region and pushed into the neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions.
In recent weeks, the Ethiopian government has intensified a mass army recruitment drive amid hopes that a reported shopping-spree acquisition of an arsenal of drones and other weapons would give it an edge.
Ethiopia’s government signed a military cooperation agreement with Turkey in August, amid reports it wanted to deploy drones in the war.
“There have already been a number of claims of the Chinese arming the Ethiopians with Wing Loong drones, and the Turks have also been providing drones for the Ethiopians,” Martin Plaut, senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, told Al Jazeera.
“I think they [the UAE] are, in a sense, a staging post for these weapons supplies. Some of them come directly, some of them go through the UAE; but the UAE is clearly underwriting what is happening.”
The year-long conflict has killed tens of thousands of people, displaced more than two million and left hundreds of thousands facing famine-like conditions.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday called for an immediate end to the fighting in Ethiopia, as the United States warned there was “no military solution” to the war.