Ethiopian government and Tigray rebels set for peace talks in South Africa

Delegations arrive for negotiations amid sharp escalation in fighting over last five months

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has vowed fighting "will end and peace will prevail". AFP
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Delegations representing the Ethiopian government and Tigray rebels arrived in South Africa on Monday for peace talks aimed at ending a two-year war.

Negotiations mediated by the African Union should begin on Monday amid an intense escalation in fighting since a five-month ceasefire broke down in August.

The AU's mediation team for the talks was to include Horn of Africa envoy Olusegun Obasanjo, South Africa's former deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta.

Kindeya Gebrehiwot, a spokesman for the rebel authorities in Tigray, announced their delegation's arrival in South Africa in a tweet on Sunday.

"Pressing: immediate cessation of hostilities, unfettered humanitarian access and withdrawal of Eritrean forces. There can't be a military solution!" he said.

Addis Ababa said its delegation had left for South Africa on Monday morning. "The government of Ethiopia views the talks as an opportunity to peacefully resolve the conflict and consolidate the improvement of the situation on the ground," it said.

But it also said its forces "have continued taking control of major urban centres in the past few days", without identifying them.

The stakes are high for finding a resolution. In August, researchers from Belgium's Ghent University said as many as 600,000 people have died in Tigray, either as a direct result of the fighting, or from related issues like a crippling famine and healthcare crisis sparked by the Ethiopian government's blockade on its northern region.

Tigray and its six million people have been under a communications blackout for over a year and independent reporting from the region has been heavily curtailed.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who sent troops into Tigray in November 2020 promising a quick victory over the northern region's dissident leaders in the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), said on Thursday the war "would end and peace will prevail".

"Ethiopia will be peaceful, we will not continue fighting indefinitely," said Mr Ahmed, who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for his rapprochement with Eritrea.

The US said it was supporting the African Union in the effort to reach a peace deal.

"It is critical that all of the parties seize this opportunity and engage seriously in talks to bring an end to the fighting and the suffering of Ethiopian people," US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said on Friday.

"Once the fighting stops – and it must – warring parties must negotiate concrete modalities to prevent a return to conflict, including security arrangements, a pathway to broader political dialogue, and assurances of unhindered humanitarian access and restoration of services."

The Pope also expressed his hope the talks ended in some resolution.

"I follow the persistent situation of conflict in Ethiopia with trepidation," Pope Francis wrote on Twitter.

"May the efforts of the parties for dialogue lead to a genuine path of reconciliation. May our prayers, our solidarity and the necessary humanitarian aid not fail our Ethiopian brothers and sisters."

The International Crisis Group's Ethiopia senior analyst William Davison said the planned talks were a "positive development" but warned "major obstacles to peace remain" including the government's attempted takeover of federal facilities in Tigray.

"The first objective for mediators is therefore to try and get the federal and Tigray delegations to agree to a truce despite the momentum towards continued military confrontation," he told AFP.

Updated: October 24, 2022, 5:11 PM