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Evidence from civilian bombing in Ethiopia points to Turkish drone

NAIROBI — 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.  

Turkey’s growing prowess as a drone exporter is styled as a point of national pride by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but any indication that a Turkish aircraft targeted civilians in Ethiopia’s 15-month-long war will intensify international pressure on the NATO country to stop arming Addis Ababa. 

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 People’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, the United Arab Emirates 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 PAX and Amnesty International identified the weapon used as a MAM-L 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 Erdoğan’s son-in-law is a senior executive.

A photograph taken by aid workers on January 13 after the extraction of missile fragments from the scene of a bombing in the town of Dedebit on January 7 that killed 58 people. The fragments have been placed on old notes.

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 Ethiopia’s military spokesman Colonel Getnet Adane did not reply to requests for comment sent by email and text message.

Ethiopia’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. The U.N. reported a series of drone strikes as recently as January 15 in the Tigrayan towns of Maychew, Korem and Samre, reportedly killing 12 more civilians and injuring several others. 

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. 

Turkey’s role is gaining increased global attention. A U.S. State Department spokesperson said its former special envoy to the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, raised reports of armed drone use in Ethiopia and the “attendant risk of civilian harm” during visits to the United Arab Emirates and Turkey in December.

“He 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 for negotiation and end the war,” the spokesperson said.

Expert witnesses

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.

“There is a very strong case to make that these drones should never have been exported at all,” he said, noting that Turkey is a signatory to the U.N.’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.

“Because 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,” 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. That location would enable the unmanned aircraft to reach several targets in Tigray, including Dedebit.

A satellite image (courtesy of Planet and analyzed by PAX) of what the Dutch nongovernmental organization PAX identifies as a Turkish drone at an Ethiopian air force base in Bahir Dar on December 16, 2021.

Brian Castner, a weapons adviser for Amnesty International’s Crisis Team, agreed a Turkish drone and missile had been used. “The wing bolts are distinctive on many of these drone-launched munitions, and this is definitely a MAM-L,” 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.

Turkey’s strategic export engine

Drone exports have become a mainstay of Turkey’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 Turkey’s decision to arm Ukraine with attack drones, according to a Kremlin statement.

In August, Abiy and Erdoğan signed cooperation deals in the water, financial and military sectors. 

The drones are manufactured by the company Baykar where Selçuk Bayraktar, the son-in-law of President Erdoğan, 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.

“Everywhere I go in Africa, everyone asks about UAVs,” Erdoğan 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 “an immediate ceasefire for the urgent cessation of the violence” and reiterating support for establishing dialogue between all parties in a press release issued by the Foreign Affairs Ministry on November 5.

Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu echoed Turkey’s willingness to provide support and encouraged talks in a conversation with his Ethiopian counterpart Demeke Mekonnen later in the month, according to reports made to the state-run Anadolu Agency. 

“Turkey will continue to support efforts towards preserving peace, serenity and stability in Ethiopia,” the country said the statement on November 5.

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