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NAIROBI â€” Newly obtained photographs of missile fragments provide the first material evidence that Ethiopia used a Turkish drone this month in an attack that killed 58 civilians sheltering in a school.Â Â
Turkeyâ€™s growing prowess as a drone exporter is styled as a point of national pride by President Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan, but any indication that a Turkish aircraft targeted civilians in Ethiopiaâ€™s 15-month-long war will intensify international pressure on the NATO country to stop arming Addis Ababa.Â
Drones are rapidly turning into the decisive weapon of the conflict and have helped Ethiopian government forces turn the tide against rebels from the Tigray Peopleâ€™s Liberation Front, which governed the country for nearly three decades before 2018. Military experts say Ethiopia is buying unmanned aerial vehicles not only from Turkey, but also from Iran, theÂ United Arab EmiratesÂ and China.
Aid workers in the northern Tigray region provided POLITICO with photographs that show exploded shards of a laser-guided bomb used in a strike on the town of Dedebit late on the night of January 7. The attack hit a school holding internally displaced people, including children, according to aid workers and Tigrayan leaders.
Studying those photographs, military experts from the Dutch nongovernmental organization PAXÂ and Amnesty InternationalÂ identified the weapon used asÂ a MAM-LÂ bomb that is fitted to a Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drone. The photographs were taken on January 13 after the aid workers extracted the missile fragments from the debris. The Bayraktar drones are made by a company in which ErdoÄŸanâ€™s son-in-law is a senior executive.
Turkish diplomats posted to Ethiopia did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Questions on the use of the MAM-L munition put to Turkish government spokespeople in Ankara also went unanswered. Billene Seyoum, a spokeswoman for Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and Ethiopiaâ€™s military spokesman Colonel Getnet Adane did not reply to requests for comment sent by email and text message.
Ethiopiaâ€™s use of drones in its war with the Tigray region has killed more than 300 civilians, according to data compiled by aid workers in the Tigray region who requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the information.Â The U.N. reported a series of drone strikes as recently as January 15 in the Tigrayan towns of Maychew, KoremÂ and Samre, reportedly killing 12 more civilians and injuring several others.Â
Unlike the Ethiopian government forces, the Tigrayan fighters do not have drones.
The attacks have drawn criticism from U.S. President Joe Biden and a warning from the United Nations that they may constitute a grave violation of international law.Â
Turkeyâ€™s role is gaining increased global attention. A U.S. State Department spokesperson said its former special envoy to theÂ Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, raised reports of armed drone use in Ethiopia and the â€œattendant risk of civilian harmâ€ during visits to the United Arab Emirates and Turkey in December.
â€œHe underscored that the U.S. is making clear to all external parties engaged on all sides of the conflict that now is the time for all outside actors to press forÂ negotiation and end the war,â€ the spokesperson said.
Wim Zwijnenburg, project leader of humanitarian disarmament at PAX, which identified the MAM-L weapon, said Turkey could not wash its hands of the matter.
â€œThere is a very strong case to make that these drones should never have been exported at all,â€ he said, noting that Turkey is a signatory to the U.N.â€™s arms trade treaty, which stipulates a risk assessment should be done on the potential of human harm before a sale is carried out. (While Turkey signed the pact in 2013, it has not ratified it.)
Zwijnenburg also stressed the need for information on the potential involvement of Turkish personnel in the deployment of the weapons.
â€œBecause this is technology that requires a lot of maintenance and piloting, Turkey could be made directly responsible if there is a consistent pattern of drone strikes used against civilians and Turkish crew is on the ground doing maintenance on the drones,â€Â he said.
Spokespeople for the Turkish presidency and foreign ministry did not respond to questions from POLITICO on whether Turkish citizens were involved in piloting the drones or whether they were helping train people to use drones.
While Ankara had no comment on the use of Turkish drones, Zwijnenburg said that satellite imagery his organization had acquired identified a TB2 drone in Bahir Dar in the region bordering Tigray on December 16 last year. The identification was possible thanks to the unique dimensions of the wingspan and length of the aircraft.Â That location would enable the unmanned aircraft to reach several targets in Tigray, including Dedebit.
Brian Castner, a weapons adviser for Amnesty Internationalâ€™sÂ Crisis Team, agreed a Turkish drone and missile had been used. â€œThe wing bolts are distinctive on many of these drone-launched munitions, and this is definitely a MAM-L,â€ he said.
Questions regarding the attack in Dedebit sent to Baykar, the maker of the TB2 drone, and Roketsan, the Turkish manufacturer of the MAM-L missile identified in the images, went unanswered.
Turkeyâ€™s strategic export engine
Drone exports have become a mainstay of Turkeyâ€™s foreign policy strategy. In 2020, during a 44-day war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, Azerbaijan gained the upper hand thanks to drones supplied by Turkey and Israel.
Military analysts saw the conflict as an example of Turkey flexing its geopolitical muscle at Russia. Indeed, President Vladimir Putin last month criticized Turkeyâ€™s decision to arm Ukraine with attack drones, according to a Kremlin statement.
In August, Abiy and ErdoÄŸan signed cooperation deals in the water, financial and military sectors.Â
The drones are manufactured by the company Baykar where SelÃ§uk Bayraktar, the son-in-law of President ErdoÄŸan, works as chief technology officer. Africa has become a key export market for Baykar following sales to Morocco and Tunisia in September last year. Baykar did not respond to a list of questions about the strike in Ethiopia.
Somalia, where Ankara already has a military base, Nigeria and Angola have also expressed an interest in doing a deal for the drones, according to two European diplomats speaking on the condition of anonymity as they are not authorized to speak publicly.
â€œEverywhere I go in Africa, everyone asks about UAVs,â€ ErdoÄŸan said in remarks carried by the Anadolu news agency after a visit to Angola, Nigeria and Togo in October, referring to unmanned aerial vehicles.
More broadly, Turkey has repeatedly expressed concerns regarding the conflict in Ethiopia, with Ankara officially calling for â€œan immediate ceasefire for the urgent cessation of the violenceâ€ and reiterating support for establishing dialogue between all parties in aÂ press releaseÂ issued by the Foreign Affairs Ministry on November 5.
Foreign Minister MevlÃ¼t Ã‡avuÅŸoÄŸlu echoed Turkeyâ€™s willingness to provide support and encouraged talks in a conversation with his Ethiopian counterpartÂ Demeke MekonnenÂ later in the month, according toÂ reportsÂ made to the state-run Anadolu Agency.Â
â€œTurkey will continue to support efforts towards preserving peace, serenity and stability in Ethiopia,â€ the country said the statement on November 5.