Ethiopia's government says it will not advance further into Tigray

The announcement followed the Tigray People's Liberation Front rebel group's announcement of retreat to its stronghold

A woman argues over the allocation of split peas in Tigray. The fighting has left nine million people in Ethiopia requiring food aid, says the UN. AP

Ethiopia's government said on Friday its troops would not advance further into the northern region of Tigray, but warned the decision could be overturned if “territorial sovereignty” was threatened.

The announcement comes days after the Tigray People's Liberation Front rebel group declared a retreat to its Tigray stronghold and signals a pause in fighting following a series of battlefield victories claimed by the government.

A TPLF withdrawal from the Amhara and Afar regions, although unconfirmed, would raise hopes of talks to end a 13-month conflict that has killed thousands and left parts of the country on the brink of famine.

On Friday, the government communication service released a statement saying federal forces had secured eastern Amhara and Afar and been ordered to “vigilantly remain in areas under our control".

“The Ethiopian government has decided not to command its forces to further advance into the Tigray region,” it said in the statement shared on Twitter.

UN chief Antonio Guterres welcomed the Ethiopian government's announcement and the message from the Tigrayan forces, his deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said.

“The secretary general urges the parties to grasp this opportunity, cease hostilities in the year-long conflict, take all steps to ensure the provision of much-needed humanitarian assistance, the withdrawal of foreign fighters, and address political differences through a credible and inclusive national dialogue,” Mr Haq said.

The halt to fighting may help lower the temperature, after months of battles that have seen both sides claim major territorial gains.

At one point, the rebels claimed to be only 200 kilometres from the capital Addis Ababa, sparking alarm among foreign governments who urged their citizens to leave the country.

But since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, headed to the front line last month, according to state media, the government has retaken a string of key towns.

The government has dismissed Monday's withdrawal announcement by the TPLF as a cover-up for military setbacks.

Communications have been cut in the conflict zone and access for journalists is restricted, making it difficult to verify battlefield claims.

The fighting in Africa's second most populous nation has displaced more than two million people and more than nine million are in need of food aid, according to UN estimates.

There have been reports of massacres, mass rapes, and other atrocities by both sides. Last week, the UN Human Rights Council ordered a probe into a wide range of alleged abuses, a move condemned by Addis Ababa.

The war broke out in November last year when Mr Abiy sent troops into Tigray to topple the TPLF, accusing its fighters of attacking army camps.

He vowed a swift victory, but the TPLF mounted a shock comeback, recapturing most of Tigray by June and then advancing into Afar and Amhara.

Updated: December 25th 2021, 8:20 AM