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CNN investigation confirms Abiy Ahmed government used Ethiopia’s flagship commercial airline to transport weapons during war in Tigray in violation of international aviation law

CNN cited Cargo documents and manifests it has seen, as well as eyewitness accounts and photographic evidence

A shocking investigation by CNN has concluded that the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali used Ethiopian Airlines, the country’s flagship commercial airline, to shuttle weapons to and from neighboring Eritrea during the devastating war in the Tigray region.

CNN, citing Cargo documents and manifests it has seen, as well as eyewitness accounts and photographic evidence, concluded that “arms were transported between Addis Ababa’s international airport and airports in the Eritrean cities of Asmara and Massawa on board multiple Ethiopian Airlines planes in November 2020 during the first few weeks of the Tigray conflict.”

“It’s the first time this weapons trade between the former foes has been documented during the war,” CNN said, adding that the flights would constitute a violation of international aviation law, which forbids the smuggling of arms for military use on civil aircraft, according to experts.

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The respected news organization added that “atrocities committed during the conflict also appear to violate the terms of a trade program that provides lucrative access to the United States market and which Ethiopian Airlines has benefited greatly from.”

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CNN noted that “Ethiopian Airlines is a state-owned economic powerhouse that generates billions of dollars a year carrying passengers to hubs across the African continent and all over the world, and it is also a member of the Star Alliance, a group of some of the world’s top aviation companies,” adding that the airline previously issued two denials about transporting weapons.

In a response to CNN’s latest investigation, Ethiopian Airlines said it “strictly complies with all National, regional and International aviation related regulations” and that “to the best of its knowledge and its records, it has not transported any war armament in any of its routes by any of its Aircraft,” the network reported.

The governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment.

The war in Ethiopia, which exploded on November 4 last year, has claimed thousands of lives and left millions of people in northern Ethiopia at an increased risk of famine.

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerkii is welcomed by Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed upon his arrival at Addis Ababa International Airport 
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerkii is welcomed by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed upon his arrival at Addis Ababa International Airport

With sharp criticisms coming from around the world and the United Nations, the government of Abiy Ahmed, a 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, announced that it was expelling UN staffers from the country for reportedly meddling into internal affairs of Ethiopia.

The move was condemned widely by the United States and around the world with many describing it as a dangerous escalation of the conflict.

On Tuesday, the United States expressed outrage that the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali decided to expel UN staffers from Ethiopia even though six-to-seven million people in the Afar, Amhara and Tigray regions are facing severe food insecurity.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield 
Linda Thomas-Greenfield

“I condemn in the strongest possible terms the Government of Ethiopia’s expulsion of UN officials from the country. This action is absolutely unacceptable and undermines international efforts to deliver humanitarian assistance to millions of people whose lives depend on it. We call on the Government of Ethiopia to reverse this decision so that this vital work can continue across all the impacted regions in northern Ethiopia,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfieldsaid in remarks at a UN Security Council Briefing on the Democratic Republic of the Congo On Government Of Ethiopia Expulsion Of UN Officials.

She added, “Nearly eleven months of fighting have left an estimated six-to-seven million people in the Afar, Amhara, and Tigray regions facing severe food insecurity, with reports that some people have resorted to eating leaves or are going multiple days without food. And recently, we have started to see photos of extremely malnourished children emerge from Tigray. More than two million people have fled their homes—many leaving with just the few belongings they could carry—and up to 900,000 people are facing famine conditions in Tigray. Yet, in this time of looming famine and heartbreaking need, the Government of Ethiopia continues to take steps to prevent aid from reaching the people who need it, instead of doing everything in its power to facilitate the delivery of life-saving assistance to its citizens.  

“Humanitarian assistance is provided on the principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence—principles that the UN and the broader humanitarian community are upholding in Ethiopia in their attempts to deliver lifesaving aid to people in desperate need. We continue to call on the Ethiopian government to reestablish communications, banking, fuel, and other vital services within Tigray, and to fully restore transport corridors and air linkages to Tigray. This includes allowing desperately needed fuel, medicines, and medical supplies into the region, which the government has effectively blocked for the last two months. 

“Humanitarian assistance is critical for saving lives, but this aid will not address the root of this crisis. An immediate end to the conflict is needed to alleviate suffering. We agree with UN leaders: this conflict is a stain on our collective conscience and it must stop. All parties must end hostilities and pursue a negotiated cease-fire immediately.”

Chief White House Correspondent for

Simon Ateba is Chief White House Correspondent for Today News Africa. Simon covers President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, the U.S. government, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other financial and international institutions in Washington D.C. and New York City.

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