Ethiopia declares unilateral truce in war-ravaged Tigray

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Ethiopia’s government on Thursday announced what it called an immediate “humanitarian truce” with forces it has been fighting for 17 months in the northern Tigray region, where millions are hungry and food aid has not been delivered since December.

The deadly conflict in Africa’s second most populous nation has pitted the Ethiopian military against rebels in the northern region of Tigray.

Late Thursday night, the provisional government in Tigray, which is aligned with the rebels, released a statement saying that if sufficient humanitarian aid arrived to meet the needs on the ground “within a reasonable timeframe,” then it, too, would be “committed to implementing a cessation of hostilities effective immediately.”

Officials with the United Nations and several aid agencies greeted the developments with hope, but also cautioned that an end to the humanitarian crisis and the bitter conflict was still far off.

The war in Ethiopia, which began in November 2020, has left thousands dead, forced more than two million people from their homes and been the focus of extensive human rights abuses, including ethnic cleansing, massacres and sexual violence.

The Ethiopian government, in announcing the unilateral truce, said it was acting because thousands of people from Tigray had begun flooding into bordering regions seeking help.

“While it is heartening to see the fraternal bond and solidarity that is being demonstrated by communities that are receiving and helping those in need of assistance, the government believes that the situation warrants urgent measures to ensure that those in need are able to receive aid in their localities,” the government said in a statement on Twitter and on Facebook.

From the war’s onset, fighting in Tigray, and later in the neighboring Afar and Amhara regions, interfered with the delivery of aid. The former top U.N. humanitarian official, Mark Lowcock, accused the government last May of impeding aid shipments.

Gezahegn Gebrehana, the Ethiopia country director for the charity organization Oxfam, said parties to the conflict must use this moment to de-escalate and allow unfettered access to aid.

“We hope this move will lead to a sustainable and inclusive peace before more lives and livelihoods are needlessly lost,” Mr. Gebrehana said in an emailed statement.

Emergency food distribution in Mekelle in June 2021.
Emergency food distribution in Mekelle in June 2021.

More than nine million people are now in need of food assistance in Tigray, Afar and Amhara, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Three-quarters of the population in Tigray are now “using extreme coping strategies to survive,” the U.N. humanitarian office said in a report this month.

The nation, in the Horn of Africa, is also grappling with a severe drought, according to Oxfam.

The government said it will work with aid groups to speed the delivery of food and water to those in need. It added that it hoped the truce will facilitate an end to the conflict, and called on the Tigrayan fighters to “desist from all acts of further aggression and withdraw from areas they have occupied in neighboring regions.”

An enduring conflict. On Nov. 4, 2020, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed began a military campaign in the country’s northern Tigray region, hoping to vanquish the Tigray People’s Liberation Front — his most troublesome political foe.

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Rebels turned the tide. Despite Mr. Abiy’s promise of a swift campaign, the Ethiopian military suffered a major defeat in June when it was forced to withdraw from Tigray. The fighting subsequently moved south.

Tigrayan forces close in. In late October, Tigrayan rebels captured two towns near Addis Ababa, the nation’s capital. The government declared a state of emergency and called on citizens to arm themselves.

Drones tip the balance. string of victories at the end of 2021 signaled that the Ethiopian government was regaining its footing on the battlefield. A fleet of combat drones acquired from allies in the Persian Gulf region was a decisive factor in the reversal.

Atrocities on both sides. A United Nations report in November offered evidence that all sides involved in the conflict had committed atrocities. Since the start of the war, the Ethiopian and Tigrayan forces have since been accused of carrying out transgressions including extrajudicial killings.

A truce. On March 24, Ethiopia’s government announced what it called a “humanitarian truce” with the rebel forces, saying it was acting because thousands of people from Tigray, where food aid has not been delivered since December, had begun flooding into bordering regions seeking help.

This is not the first time that the Ethiopian government has declared a unilateral cease-fire in the war. It first did so last June, after the Ethiopian military was routed in Tigray, and the Tigrayan fighters retook Mekelle. But it was not long before fighting flared up again elsewhere between government forces and the Tigrayan rebels.

The announcement of this latest truce came just days after David Satterfield, the U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, visited senior officials in Ethiopia and pushed for the delivery of humanitarian aid to Tigray.

On Thursday, a State Department spokesman said in an emailed statement that the United States welcomed and “strongly” supported the Ethiopian government’s decision.

Other U.N. and Western officials, however, expressed skepticism that the truce would hold. Aid flights into Tigray are still hindered, and it wasn’t clear whether militias in Afar would allow aid relief to travel by road through to Tigray, when many people in Afar are also desperate for assistance.

The war in Ethiopia has also proved risky for humanitarian workers. At least seven have been attacked and killed while working in the region since the war began. A New York Times investigation published last week found that Ethiopian soldiers were most likely responsible for gunning down three aid workers with Doctors Without Borders in the Tigray region last June.

A spokesman for Ethiopia’s ministry of foreign affairs called that report “baseless” at a news conference in the capital, Addis Ababa, on Thursday. Dina Mufti, the spokesman, said the government regretted the killings and had established a group to investigate, but was unable to gain access to the area because it was under the control of the T.P.L.F.

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