Sudan’s government is cracking down on a major human trafficking route along its eastern border with Eritrea and deploying more forces in the border state of Kassala as tensions with neighboring Eritrea have increased.
Authorities in Khartoum announced via local media on Thursday that security forces in Kassala had stopped “more than 90 Eritrean infiltrators” in the past two days, describing the arrests as part of anti-trafficking operations. Hitherto, the Red Sea corridor has served as a major trafficking route for migrants headed for Europe.
The security crackdown comes after Sudan closed its border with Eritrea last week and dispatched troops to the Eritrean border.
Relations between Sudan and its northern neighbor Egypt have deteriorated as well. Sudan last week recalled its ambassador from Egypt, even as Eritrea intensified its diplomatic engagement with the north African power.
On Monday, January 8th, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi hosted Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki at the presidential palace in Cairo (pictured above). After the meeting the Egyptian presidency announced that the two sides “have agreed on continuing intensive cooperation… to support security and stability in the region.”
In the meantime, Khartoum dispatched its army chief of staff to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. Meeting on the same day, Imad-Eddin Mustafa Adawi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn reportedly discussed the Sudanese decision to close the border with Eritrea.
The flurry of diplomatic missions involving Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt relates to tensions over several key issues, including the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam. Sudan has aligned itself with Ethiopia over the Grand Renaissance Dam and stands to benefit from the electricity generated by the dam.
Egypt has concerns about the possible ecological impact of the dam and recently floated a proposal to have Sudan cut out from Egyptian-Ethiopian talks on the matter. Sudan also has a territorial dispute with Egypt over the border region of Halayeb, which has been under Egyptian military control since the 1990s.
Sudan ups the rhetoric
Adam Jama Adam, the governor of Kassala, this week announced the formation of a committee for mobilization and readiness in his state, which borders Eritrea. Today, January 11th, he met with Popular Defence Forces leaders and was quoted in state media as praising the paramilitary group’s role in warding off a rebel offensive in Kassala in the year 2000 – a time when Sudanese opposition elements were based in Eritrea.
Speaking at the same event, Maj. Gen. Babiker Hamid, Commander of the 11th Infantry Division, said that “the large gathering of mujahideen sends a message that Sudan will not fall by its Eastern Gate, and shows that the Popular Defense Forces is the primary support of the Armed Forces in all situations.” He added, “We are not advocates of war and will not attack anyone,” stressing the role of the armed forces for self-defense, according to state-run Sudan News Agency.
Khartoum is explicitly linking the new security measures in the eastern state of Kassala to external threats. Ibrahim Mahmoud Hamid, the deputy chairman of Sudan’s ruling party, issued a statement after a party leadership meeting today saying the new security measures in Kassala are being instated “after receiving information on potential security threats from Egypt and Eritrea at Sawa area.”
For its part, Ethiopia has previously accused Eritrea of supporting a plot to disrupt construction of the multi-billion dollar Grand Renaissance dam project. Last March, Ethiopia claimed that a group of would-be saboteurs had fled to Sudan, where they were then arrested by Sudanese authorities and later handed over to Ethiopian security.
Border closings in Sudan therefore may reflect a concern on the part of Ethiopian and Sudanese authorities that saboteurs could cross from Eritrea into Ethiopia via Sudan. Eritrea, for its part, has denied involvement in the alleged plot on the dam.
Separately, there are indications of increased tensions along the Ethiopia-Eritrea border as well. The US Embassy in Ethiopia issued a travel advisory on Wednesday, January 10th, warning against travel to the Danakil Depression, a popular tourist destination close to the Ethiopian border with Eritrea. The embassy cites “the evolving security situation” in the area, without providing additional details.
Reports of Egyptians in Eritrea
In the week before Afwerki’s visit to Cairo, reports circulated online of Egyptian troops arriving in the Red Sea nation. These reports appear to have originated in Qatari media based in Doha and are not yet corroborated by Egyptian or Western media reports. However, Egyptian naval and air forces have been fighting in Yemen, just across the Red Sea from Eritrea, and Egypt’s ally, the UAE, does already have a military base in Eritrea.
Al Jazeera Arabic on January 2nd ran the headline, “Egyptian military reinforcements arrive at Eritrean base,” saying that Egyptian forces with “modern weapons and four-wheel drive vehicles” had arrived at the Sawa military base in Eritrea. The site linked the developments to Eritrean-UAE cooperation as well as deteriorating Sudanese-Eritrean relations. The Doha-based news outlet cited “exclusive sources” for the story adding that a meeting was held at the Sawa base among military and security representatives of Egypt, the UAE, Eritrea, and Sudanese opposition movements from Darfur and eastern Sudan.
Al Jazeera English echoed this line of reporting in its own story dated January 9th, saying that Egypt “sent hundreds of its troops to a UAE base in Eritrea, on the border with Sudan.” In a later report, Al Jazeera Arabic disclosed that this information had come to them via a correspondent based in Ethiopia.
Reports of Egyptian plans to build a military base in Eritrea had surfaced last year as well, and were denied at that time by the Egyptian military. Likewise, the new reports are denied by Eritrea’s Information Minister Yemane Meskel. He wrote on the social media site Twitter, “For reasons better known to itself, Al Jazeera News Channel seems to relish propagating false and preposterous news on Eritrea: latest is phantom deployment of Egyptian troops/weapons!”
News outlets that have run with the story on Egyptian deployments in Eritrea include Doha-based Al Jazeera, Doha-based Al-Sharq, and Iran’s state-run Arabic service, Al-Alam. The story gained additional traction online when it was translated from Al-Sharq into English by the London-based Middle East Monitor (MEMO),
Martin Plaut, a journalist who has written a book about Eritrea, questions the veracity of the report. “The suggestion that there are any foreigners at Sawa has been rejected by eyewitnesses at Sawa, who say there are no Egyptians at the centre,” he wrote in a January 6th blog post.
Plaut also pointed to associations between MEMO and the Muslim Brotherhood, which was deposed by the current government in Egypt. “Is MEMO – and its Muslim Brotherhood backers – attempting to plant misinformation about Egyptian troops in Eritrea?” he asked. “And to what end?”
Sudan has not yet explained why it withdrew its ambassador from Cairo earlier this month for consultations.
Tensions between Cairo and Khartoum have been building for some time, and escalated when in May last year the Sudanese cabinet ratified a ban on importing agricultural products from Egypt. In a more recent move, Sudan filed a complaint with the United Nations over Egypt’s military control of the Halayeb Triangle, a disputed border territory.
Egypt rejected in 2016 a request from Khartoum to enter negotiations to determine sovereignty over the triangle or to seek international arbitration.
Sudan also irritated its northern neighbor by rolling out the red carpet for Turkish President Recep Erdogan in December and discussing plans for a Turkish naval facility on Suakin island on the Red Sea coast. Pro-government press in Cairo at the time criticized Sudan for its allegedly close ties with Turkey, Iran and Qatar.