Rebel leaders in Ethiopia’s war-torn Tigray region on Sunday accepted “a ceasefire in principle” but posed strict conditions for it to be formalised.
Notable among those conditions was the withdrawal from the region of Eritrean forces as well as fighters from the neighbouring Ethiopian region of Amhara, who have been supporting the Ethiopian army during the eight-month long conflict.
They also called for the restoration of their dislodged Tigray government.
Tigray has been the scene of fighting since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent the army in last November to topple the dissident regional authorities, which emerged from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
Abiy, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, accused them of orchestrating attacks on Ethiopian military bases.
After early successes and a premature declaration of victory, government forces were bogged down in a vicious and months-long battle with pro-TPLF fighters — the Tigray Defence Forces, or TDF. The Ethiopian army was backed by troops from the neighbouring Amhara region and the army of Eritrea, which borders Tigray.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) recently indicated that Eritrean forces had largely withdrawn from Tigray and returned across the border.
– ‘Ironclad guarantees’ –
On Monday, the TPLF recaptured the Tigrayan capital Mekele, held by the Ethiopian army since 28 November.
The government in Addis Ababa immediately declared a unilateral ceasefire, but this was swiftly derided as a “joke” by the rebel forces, which vowed to continue fighting.
Now the rebels have agreed to a ceasefire in principle but another of their conditions is the restoration of what Addis Ababa considers the rebel government in Tigray.
The rebels said they required “ironclad guarantees that the security of our people will not be compromised by a second round of invasions, we accept a ceasefire in principle”, a statement signed by the “government of Tigray” said on Sunday.
“Nevertheless, before a ceasefire agreement is formalised, the following thorny problems must be resolved,” the text continues, before listing the conditions.
The rebels’ statement called for the resumption of the activities of “the government democratically elected in Tigray with all its powers and constitutional responsibilities”.
The United Nations and numerous governments have called for a ceasefire to be respected, especially to allow humanitarian aid to reach civilian populations.
– ‘Thorny issues’ –
The rebel authorities are also calling for “procedures to hold (Ethiopian Prime Minister) Abiy Ahmed and (President) Issaias Aferworki accountable in direct proportion to the severity and magnitude of the damage they have inflicted on Tigray”, as well as the creation by the UN of an independent investigation body to probe the “horrific crimes” carried out during the conflict.
Other conditions are humanitarian, including the distribution of aid and the safe return to Tigray of displaced people.
Electricity and communications have been cut in Tigray, flights suspended and two bridges crucial for aid deliveries have been destroyed.
Ethiopia has rejected charges that it plans to choke off aid to Tigray after the rebels took control of the northern region this week — a stunning turnabout in the eight-month-old conflict.
The federal government did not respond to an AFP request for a response but it has always refused to open any dialogue with TPLF leaders, classifying the group as a terrorist organisation by parliamentary decree.
In a closed-door meeting with diplomats on Friday, Ethiopian leaders said the government was prepared to hold an “inclusive dialogue to resolve the crisis in Tigray” while repeating that it will not deal with the TPLF leaders.
According to the UN, over 400,000 people have “crossed the threshold into famine” in Tigray and 1.8 million people are on the brink of famine.