Tigrayan forces fighting the central government are withdrawing from neighbouring regions in Ethiopia’s north, a Tigrayan forces spokesperson said on Monday, a step towards a possible ceasefire after major territorial gains by the Ethiopian military.
The 13-month-old war in Africa’s second most populous nation has destabilised an already fragile region, sent 60 000 refugees into Sudan, pulled Ethiopian soldiers away from war-ravaged Somalia and sucked in armed forces from neighbouring Eritrea.
His letter to the United Nations also called for a no-fly zone for hostile aircraft over Tigray, arms embargoes on Ethiopia and its ally Eritrea, and a UN mechanism to verify that external armed forces have withdrawn from Tigray – all requests that the Ethiopian government is likely to oppose.
Thousands of civilians have been killed as a result of the conflict, around 400 000 are facing famine in Tigray and 9.4 million people need food aid across northern Ethiopia.
Will Davison, senior analyst for Ethiopia at the International Crisis Group think tank, said the TPLF letter represented a “significant opportunity for peace talks”.
“There are reasons to think this rare opportunity might lead to a peace process and cessation of hostilities,” he said.
A significant shift in the Tigrayan position, he said, was the abandonment of their demand that hostile forces withdraw from Western Tigray as a precondition for peace talks, as well as a concession that this could come about as part of an internationally-backed peace process.
Any Tigrayan demands to keep their forces intact might be hard for the Ethiopian government to swallow, he said, but a gradual process might be possible. He added that other trust-building measures might be under way, such as the federal government releasing jailed political leaders.
Debretsion said he hoped the Tigrayan withdrawal, from the regions of Afar and Amhara, would force the international community to ensure that food aid could enter Tigray. The United Nations has previously accused the government of operating a de facto blockade – a charge Addis Ababa has denied.
“We hope that by (us) withdrawing, the international community will do something about the situation in Tigray as they can no longer use as an excuse that our forces are invading Amhara and Afar,” TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda told Reuters on Monday.
The letter also endorses the use of international investigators to pursue those responsible for war crimes.
Last week the United Nations agreed to set up an independent investigation into rights abuses in Ethiopia – a move strongly opposed by the Ethiopian government, which sees it as an infringement of national sovereignty.
International mediators including the African Union and United States have repeatedly tried to negotiate a ceasefire to allow aid to enter Tigray, but both sides have refused until certain conditions were met.
The conflict erupted last year between the federal government and the TPLF, which dominated Ethiopian politics for nearly three decades before Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018.
In June, the Ethiopian and Eritrean militaries withdrew from Tigray after reports of mass killings of civilians, gang rapes and blocking of aid supplies. The government has said it has prosecuted individual soldiers although it has provided no details, and denied blocking aid.
In July, Tigrayan forces invaded Afar and Amhara. The Ethiopian military launched an offensive at the end of November that pushed the Tigrayan forces back hundreds of kilometres.
Reuters reporters travelling to liberated towns in Amhara saw signs of heavy fighting, and local residents reported abuses such as killings and rapes by Tigrayan fighters. The TPLF has said any soldiers found guilty would be punished.