Mogadishu (AFP) — Somalia is under growing pressure to explain the fate of soldiers whose families fear they were secretly deployed from training camps in neighbouring Eritrea to fight in Ethiopia's northern Tigray region.
The government has strenuously denied allegations that Somali troops were sent to battlefields in Tigray, where Ethiopian federal troops have been fighting with regional forces since November.
But some lawmakers have written to Somalia's president appealing for information on behalf of desperate parents who say their sons in uniform have gone missing, and they have reason to believe they could be in Tigray.Hussein Ibrahim said his son was told he was going to Qatar for training, but wound up in Eritrea.
"I last spoke with my son 22 days ago. He told me he was fine but concerned, because some of his comrades were relocated from the camp and he didn't know to where," he said.
"I don't know who to ask about his fate. There are reports everywhere that those taken to Eritrea were sent to fight in Ethiopia, and that some had died."
Information minister Osman Abukar Dubbe on January 19 said "there were no Somali troops fighting in Tigray, and no such request made by the Ethiopian government", describing reports to the contrary as "propaganda".
- 'Alive or not'? -
But the whereabouts of the missing soldiers remains unclear, and the plight of their families has struck a chord in Somalia and raised difficult questions for politicians preparing for a fraught national election which had been scheduled for next month but is beset with delays.
"We need the Somali president to hear our appeal, and tell us if our children are alive or not," said Fadumo Moalim Abdulle, who believes her son was sent to Eritrea after being told he was going to Qatar.
In a letter dated January 18, the foreign relations committee asked President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, better known by his nickname Farmajo, for "details about the number of soldiers in Eritrea for training, and when they are coming back to the country".
"We also understand that many parents have not been able to contact their children for some time, only to hear they were killed fighting in Tigray with government forces," the letter stated.
"Confirm where these soldiers are now, and put them in touch with their parents."
A military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP that some recruits were sent to Eritrea for training "but these reports about Somali soldiers sent to Tigray are baseless".
But Abdisalam Guleid, a former Somali deputy spy chief, told AFP that "Somalia had indeed entered the war, and that many soldiers had died," citing intelligence from Ethiopian counterparts.
- 'Hush hush' -
After three weeks of fighting, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared victory in late November against the TPLF, the ruling party in Tigray, after the army captured the regional capital Mekele.
But the TPLF leadership remains on the run and has vowed to fight on. Thousands have died so far in the conflict, according to the International Crisis Group.
The fighting has raised concerns for stability in the wider Horn of Africa, with fears that Ethiopia's neighbours could be dragged into a regional conflict.
Ethiopia last week denied the presence of Somali troops in Tigray, and continued to dismiss witness accounts of Eritrean involvement in the conflict.
"Ethiopia has never invited any of the neighbouring countries or others to be part of this conflict. This is an internal matter; the Ethiopian army has done it by itself," said Dina Mufti, spokesman for Ethiopia's foreign affairs ministry.
In December, the US State Department said it was "aware of credible reports of Eritrean military involvement in Tigray" and called for their withdrawal. This month the state-affiliated Ethiopian Human Rights Commission accused Eritrean troops of looting in Tigray.
Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 in large part for initiating a rapprochement with Eritrea, whose President Isaias Afwerki and the TPLF remain bitter enemies.
Abiy also forged a three-way regional security arrangement with Eritrea and Somalia.
Analysts say it is plausible small numbers of Eritrean-trained Somalis were sent to Tigray, given Eritrea's long history of using regional forces under its tutelage for its own strategic gain.
"What's clear is that troops have gone to Eritrea. Some have come back. But the government has never given any details about these troops, not even their numbers or the fact there are cohorts," said one regional security analyst, who asked not to be named.
"It's all hush hush."