Ethiopia’s Tigray rebels say they are ready to take part in peace talks led by the African Union (AU), removing an obstacle to potential negotiations with the government to end almost two years of fighting.
The announcement was made amid a flurry of international diplomacy after fighting flared last month for the first time in months in northern Ethiopia, torpedoing a humanitarian truce.
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“The government of Tigray is prepared to participate in a robust peace process under the auspices of the African Union,” said a statement by the authorities in the northernmost region of Tigray.
“Furthermore we are ready to abide by an immediate and mutually agreed cessation of hostilities in order to create a conducive atmosphere.”
On Monday, the White House said it “welcomes” the announcement.
“It’s high time for both sides to stop fighting and turn to dialogue to resolve their differences,” said White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre to reporters aboard Air Force One.
She said Ethiopia should “seize this moment to give peace a chance” and that “Eritrea and others should stayout of the conflict.”
There was no immediate comment about the announcement from the Ethiopian government, which has long insisted that any peace process must be brokered by the Addis Ababa-headquartered AU.
But the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) had until now vehemently opposed the role of the AU’s Horn of Africa envoy Olusegun Obasanjo, protesting at his “proximity” to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
Sunday’s statement, which coincided with Ethiopia’s new year, made no mention of any preconditions for talks, although it said it expected a “credible” peace process with “mutually acceptable” mediators as well as international observers.
TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael had earlier this month proposed a truce with four conditions including “unfettered humanitarian access” and the restoration of essential services in war-stricken Tigray.
In a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, he had also called for the withdrawal of Eritrean forces from across Ethiopia, and for troops to pull out of western Tigray, a disputed region claimed by both Tigrayans and Amharas, the country’s second-largest ethnic group.
‘Choose talks over fighting’
On Saturday, the AU’s Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat had announced that Obasanjo’s mandate would be extended.
“I reiterated my full confidence in him & encouraged his continued engagement with both parties & intl actors to work towards peace & reconciliation in Ethiopia & the region,” Faki said on Twitter after meeting Obasanjo.
I received the AU High Rep for the Horn, H.E. President Olusegun Obasanjo whose mandate has been extended.I reiterated my full confidence in him & encouraged his continued engagement with both parties & intl actors to work towards peace & reconciliation in Ethiopia & the region. pic.twitter.com/BOU1ZNqs7u
— Moussa Faki Mahamat (@AUC_MoussaFaki) September 10, 2022
Faki also said he had held talks on Saturday with the visiting United States envoy for the Horn of Africa, Mike Hammer.
“May the parties in the conflict have the courage to choose talks over fighting, and participate in an African Union-led process that produces a lasting peace,” Hammer said in a new year’s message for Ethiopians on Sunday.
Fighting has raged on several fronts in northern Ethiopia since hostilities resumed on August 24, with both sides accusing the other of firing first and breaking a March truce.
The combat first broke out around Tigray’s southeastern border, but has since spread along to areas west and north of the initial clashes, with the TPLF accusing Ethiopian and Eritrean forces of launching a massive joint offensive on September 1.
The UN had said on Thursday the renewed fighting had forced a halt to desperately needed aid deliveries to Tigray, both by road and air.
The March truce had allowed aid convoys to travel to Tigray’s capital, Mekelle, for the first time since mid-December.
But in its first situation report since the latest clashes broke out, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the violence was “already impacting the lives and livelihood of vulnerable people, including the delivery of lifesaving humanitarian assistance”.