Ethiopian Tigray rebels say they are ready for AU-led peace talks

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Nairobi (AFP) – Ethiopian rebels in Tigray said on Sunday they were ready for a ceasefire and would accept an African Union-led peace process, removing an obstacle to talks with the government to end nearly two years brutal war.

The announcement came amid a flurry of international diplomacy after fighting erupted last month for the first time in several months in northern Ethiopia, torpedoing a humanitarian truce.

“The Tigray government is ready to participate in a robust peace process under the auspices of the African Union,” said a statement from the Tigray authorities.

“Furthermore, we are ready to respect an immediate and mutually agreed cessation of hostilities in order to create a conducive atmosphere.”

The Ethiopian government has previously said it is ready for unconditional talks “anytime, anywhere”, brokered by the AU, which is headquartered in Addis Ababa.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) had so far fiercely opposed the role of AU envoy for the Horn of Africa, Olusegun Obasanjo, protesting his “closeness” to the Prime Ethiopian Minister Abiy Ahmed.

AU Commission Head Moussa Faki Mahamat issued a statement hailing the development as a “unique opportunity towards the restoration of peace” and urged “both parties to work urgently towards a ceasefire”. -immediate fire, to engage in direct talks”.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called in a statement “for the parties to seize this opportunity for peace and to take steps to end the violence once and for all and opt for dialogue”.

He said the United Nations stands ready to support the AU-led peace process.

Taye Dendea, Ethiopia’s Minister of State for Peace, called the TPLF announcement a “beautiful development” on Twitter, but insisted that “the so-called TDF (Tigray Defense Force) must be disarmed before the start of the peace talks. Clear position!”

In search of a “credible” peace process

The TPLF statement, which coincided with the Ethiopian New Year, made no mention of preconditions, though it said Tigrayans expected a ‘credible’ peace process with ‘mutually acceptable’ mediators as well as observers international.

Earlier this month, TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael offered a conditional truce calling for “unfettered humanitarian access” and the restoration of essential services in Tigray, which is suffering from food shortages and a lack electricity, communications and banking services.

In a letter to Guterres, he also called for the withdrawal of Eritrean forces from all over Ethiopia and the withdrawal of troops from Western Tigray, a disputed region claimed by both Tigrayans and Amharas, the country’s second largest ethnic group.

Sunday’s statement said a negotiating team including TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda and General Tsadkan Gebretensae, a former Ethiopian army chief currently at the Central Military Command in Tigray, was “ready to deploy without time limit”.

Debretsion revealed last month that two rounds of confidential face-to-face meetings had taken place between senior civilian and military officials, the first acknowledgment by either warring side of direct contact.

“Prefer talks to fights”

The AU’s Faki spoke on Saturday with Obasanjo, the former Nigerian president, and US envoy to the Horn of Africa, Mike Hammer.

“May the parties to the conflict have the courage to choose talks over fighting and participate in an African Union-led process that produces lasting peace,” Hammer said in a New Year’s message to 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.

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The latest fighting first broke out around Tigray’s southeastern border but has since spread to areas west and north of the initial clashes, with the TPLF blaming Ethiopian and Eritrean forces for launching an offensive massive joint over Tigray on September 1.

The United Nations said on Thursday that renewed fighting had forced a halt to desperately needed aid deliveries to Tigray, both by road and by air.

The March truce allowed aid convoys to reach Mekele, Tigray’s capital, for the first time since mid-December.

Countless civilians have been killed since war broke out in Africa’s second most populous country, and millions of people in northern Ethiopia are in need of emergency aid.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Abiy sent troops to Tigray in November 2020 to overthrow the TPLF in response to what he said were attacks by the group on federal army camps.

The TPLF retook most of Tigray in a surprise return in June 2021 and expanded into Afar and Amhara, before fighting reached a stalemate.