Ethiopia used its flagship commercial airline to transport weapons during war in Tigray


2021-10-08 /

Ethiopia's government has used the country's flagship commercial airline to shuttle weapons to and from neighboring Eritrea during the civil war in Ethiopia's Tigray region.
Cargo documents and manifests seen by CNN, as well as eyewitness accounts and photographic evidence, confirm 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.
Experts said the flights would constitute a violation of international aviation law, which forbids the smuggling of arms for military use on civil aircraft.
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.

Military refills

Long-simmering tensions between Ethiopia's government and the ruling party in the Tigray region exploded on November 4, when Ethiopia accused the Tigray People's Liberation Front of attacking a federal army base.
Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia's Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister, ordered a military offensive to oust the TPLF from power. Government forces and regional militias poured into Tigray, joined on the front lines by troops from Eritrea.
Thousands of people are estimated to have died in the conflict, which by many accounts bears the hallmarks of genocide and ethnic cleansing. While all sides have been accused of committing grave human rights abuses during Tigray's war, previous CNN investigations established that Eritrean soldiers have been behind some of the worst atrocities, including sexual violence and mass killings. Eritrea has denied wrongdoing by its soldiers and only admitted to having troops in Tigray this spring.

Documents obtained by CNN indicate that flights carrying weapons between Ethiopia and Eritrea began at least as early as a few days after the outset of the Tigray conflict.

On at least six occasions -- from November 9 to November 28 -- Ethiopian Airlines billed Ethiopia's ministry of defense tens of thousands of dollars for military items including guns and ammunition to be shipped to Eritrea, records seen by CNN show.

The documents, known as air waybills, detail the contents of each shipment. In one document, the "nature and quantity of goods" is listed as "Military refill" and "Dry food stuff." Other entries included the description "Consolidated." The records also had abbreviations and spelling mistakes such as "AM" for ammunition and "RIFFLES" for rifles, according to airline employees. They told CNN the spelling errors were introduced when the contents were manually entered by employees into the cargo database.

On November 9, five days after Abiy ordered a military offensive in Tigray, records show an Ethiopian Airlines flight transported guns and ammunitions from Addis Ababa to Asmara, Eritrea's capital.
An air waybill and a cargo manifest from that date show that Ethiopian Airlines charged Ethiopia $166,398.32 for about 2,643 pieces of "DFS & RIFFLE WITH AM (sic)" on that flight. DFS is a reference to "dry food stuff," according to airline sources.

Another air waybill from a few days later, November 13, has the same shipper and consignee.
As planes went back and forth between the two countries, massacres of Tigrayans in the city of Axum and the village of Dengelat by Eritrean troops took place on November 19 and November 30 respectively.
Cargo documents show that the series of flights between Ethiopia and Eritrea continued until at least November 28, 2020.

Many of these flights do not appear on popular online flight tracking platforms such as Flightradar24. When they do, the destination in Eritrea is often not visible and the flight path vanishes once the plane crosses the border from Ethiopia.
The employees told CNN the staff could manually turn off the ADS-B signal on board to prevent the flights being publicly tracked.

One former employee told CNN airline Tigrayan employees were instructed at Addis Ababa's Bole International Airport to load guns and four military vehicles onto an Ethiopian Airlines cargo plane that was due to fly to Belgium but was sent instead to Eritrea.
"The cars were Toyota pickups which have a stand for snipers," the employee said. "I got a call from the managing director late at night informing me to handle the cargo. Soldiers came at 5 a.m. to start loading two big trucks loaded with weapons and the pickups."?
"I had to stop a flight to Brussels, a 777-cargo plane, which was loaded with flowers, then we unloaded half of the perishable goods to make space for the armaments."?
The former employee warned soldiers that the vehicles were carrying far more gas than was allowed under international air transport rules, but said they were overruled after a direct call from an army commander.

The flight, loaded with both weapons and flowers, traveled to Eritrea, then returned to Addis before flying on to Brussels the following day, the employee said. CNN cross-referenced this testimony with Flightradar24 and found the record of an Ethiopian Airlines aircraft returning from the direction of Eritrea and flying to Brussels the next day but could not independently verify it was the same flight referred to by the employee.

It appears to be not the only long-distance international flight with unplanned stops. A flight from Addis Ababa to Shanghai on November 9, 2020, took a long detour via Eritrea according to the ADS-B signal that tracks the route on Flightradar24.

The images show a variety of mortars stacked up in the crates. Dan Kaszeta, a London based defense specialist and an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, identified the mortars as 832-DU 82mm mortar rounds, originally made in Russia but with many versions subsequently manufactured, including in Bulgaria.
CNN has contacted the Bulgarian government and reached out to Bulgarian arms producers but received no response. According to the EU's public database, Bulgaria sold weapons to Ethiopia as recently as 2020.

CNN has learned that the cargo plane in question took off on November 8 from Addis Ababa empty before landing in Massawa, where local workers were tasked with manually loading it with a variety of weapons, including these mortars.

A cargo manifest from that day, seen by CNN, confirms the flight was empty when it reached Massawa.?
A screenshot from the Ethiopian Airlines internal database taken by an employee and sent to CNN reveals a flight on November 8 to Massawa that is hidden from flight tracking sites. The weapons were then dropped in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, before the aircraft returned to Addis Ababa on November 9.

CNN has learned that the cargo plane in question took off on November 8 from Addis Ababa empty before landing in Massawa, where local workers were tasked with manually loading it with a variety of weapons, including these mortars.

'A lot of legal repercussions'

Several aviation experts CNN spoke to on these findings said Ethiopian Airlines appeared to be in violation of the Convention on International Civil Aviation, commonly known as the Chicago Convention, which prohibits commercial carriers from transporting "munitions of war or implements of war."
Pablo Mendes de Leon, professor of air and space law at The Hague, told that CNN's findings "have a lot of legal repercussions and conditions, all of which may not have been met."

Ethiopia's status as a regional economic powerhouse is partly dependent on Ethiopian Airlines' dominance in cargo. The country and the airline have benefited from an American trade program that provides favorable access to the US market for countries that meet certain criteria.
This relationship matters for both countries: in 2017, US exports to Ethiopia consisted primarily of aircraft and aircraft components from Boeing, valued at more than $857 million.
But a clause in the US African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) stipulates that eligible nations must not engage in "gross violations of internationally recognized human rights."

In late August, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai warned Ethiopia's chief trade negotiator that "the ongoing violations of internationally recognized human rights" in Tigray "could affect Ethiopia's future [AGOA] eligibility if unaddressed." Tai's office would conduct its next review of eligibility for AGOA in 2022, "based upon compliance with standards that include adherence to internationally recognized workers' rights, rule of law, and human rights." After the review, Tai could "possibly recommend that the President add or remove certain countries from AGOA beneficiary country status."