Eritrea’s president visits Sudan amid tensions over Ethiopia

The President of Eritrea arrived in Khartoum on Tuesday for talks with Sudanese officials when tensions arose in the long-standing border dispute between Sudan and Ethiopia.

President Isaias Afwerki landed at Khartoum’s international airport and was received by Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, head of Sudan’s ruling sovereign council. The two leaders then began closed-door talks on cooperation and ways to develop ties between the two countries, according to a statement from the Sudanese sovereign council.

It said the two also discussed regional issues in apparent reference to the border tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan and a decade-long dispute over a massive dam Ethiopia is building over the Blue Nile. The statement did not provide further details.

The two-day visit comes after Sudan in February accused a third party of siding with Ethiopia in its border dispute with Sudan. It was likely referring to Eritrea, which has deployed troops to the Tigray region to fight alongside Ethiopian federal forces in the conflict there.

Following Sudan’s accusation, Eritrea dispatched its foreign minister to Sudan who assured Khartoum that Eritrea was not part of the dispute between Sudan and Ethiopia.

Decades of disagreement have centered on large agricultural areas that Sudan says are within its borders in the al-Fashqa region that Ethiopian farmers have cultivated for years. The Tigray conflict in Ethiopia, which has led to an influx of refugees into Sudan, has exacerbated the dispute.

The dispute escalated in November after Sudan deployed troops to the territories it says are occupied by Ethiopian farmers and militias.

Sudan and Ethiopia have since held rounds of talks to try and settle the dispute, most recently in Khartoum in December, but have not made progress.

Khartoum has said its forces have reclaimed most of its territory. But it has called on Ethiopia to withdraw troops from at least two points it says are inside Sudan under an agreement that demarcated the borders between the two nations in the early 1900s.

Ethiopia, however, accused Sudan of taking advantage of the deadly conflict in Tigray to enter Ethiopian territory and loot property, kill civilians and displace thousands of people. The Tigray fighting has sent over 70,000 Ethiopia refugees into Sudan.

The Eritrean delegation included Foreign Minister Osman Saleh and Presidential Adviser Yemane Ghebreab, said Eritrea’s Information Minister Yemane Ghebremeskel.

The visit came as Afwerki faces growing pressure from the international community, including the U.S., to withdrew Eritrean troops from Tigray.

Soldiers from Eritrea, long an enemy of Tigray’s now-fugitive leaders, have also been blamed for some of the worst human rights abuses in the Tigray conflict.

Also on Tuesday, Burhan discussed the border and dam disputes with U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., chairman of a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., chairman of a subcommittee on Africa and global health policy..

The senators also met with Finance Minister Gabriel Ibrahim to discuss ways to re-admit Sudan into the international community following its removal from the U.S. blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism.

Coons, a key Biden ally, said their talks included the issue of relief of Sudan’s foreign debt, which is at $70 billion. “Sudan is making good progress, steady progress in re-entering the global financial system,” he said. “We are excited and optimistic about the future.”

The Trump administration removed Sudan from the U.S.’s list of state sponsors of terrorism as an incentive for the east African nation to establish ties with Israel.

Cash-stripped Sudan is on a fragile path to democracy after a popular uprising led the military to overthrow longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. The country is now ruled by a joint military and civilian government that seeks better ties with Washington and the West.