Tigrayan rebels have agreed to a “cessation of hostilities”, marking a turning point in the nearly 17-month war in northern Ethiopia after the government’s announcement of an indefinite humanitarian truce a day earlier.
The rebels said in a statement sent to AFP they were “committed to implementing a cessation of hostilities effective immediately” and urged Ethiopian authorities to hasten delivery of emergency aid into Tigray, where hundreds of thousands face starvation.
Since war broke out in November 2020, thousands have died, and many more have been forced to flee their homes as the conflict has expanded from Tigray to the neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar.
On Thursday, Abiy Ahmed’s government declared a surprise truce, saying it hoped the move would ease humanitarian access to Tigray and “pave the way for the resolution of the conflict”.
It called on the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) to “desist from all acts of further aggression and withdraw from areas they have occupied in neighbouring regions”.
The rebels in turn urged “Ethiopian authorities to go beyond empty promises and take concrete steps to facilitate unfettered humanitarian access to Tigray”.
The conflict erupted when Abiy sent troops into Tigray to topple the TPLF, the region’s former ruling party, saying the move came in response to rebel attacks on army camps.
Fighting has dragged on, triggering a humanitarian crisis, as accounts have emerged of massacres and mass rapes, with both sides accused of human rights violations.
More than 400,000 people have been displaced in Tigray, which has also been subject to what the UN says is a de facto blockade.
The United States has accused Abiy’s government of preventing aid from reaching those in need, while the authorities in turn have blamed the rebels for the obstruction.
Nearly 40% of Tigray’s population faces “an extreme lack of food”, the UN said in January, with fuel shortages forcing aid workers to deliver medicines and other crucial supplies by foot.
The UN, US, European Union, African Union and China hailed the truce declaration.
“These positive developments must now translate into immediate improvements on the ground,” said the spokesperson for UN secretary-general chief António Guterres.
“The conflict in Ethiopia has caused terrible suffering for millions of people.”
The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said Washington “urges all parties to build on this announcement to advance a negotiated and sustainable ceasefire, including necessary security arrangements”.
In contrast to Beijing’s more circumspect approach, Washington angered Ethiopia’s government by removing trading privileges for the country over rights concerns during the war, but stopped short of imposing sanctions to encourage a ceasefire.
Diplomats, led by the AU’s envoy to the Horn of Africa Olusegun Obasanjo, have spent months trying to broker peace talks, but with little evident progress.
The new US special envoy to the region, David Satterfield, visited Ethiopia this week to meet Obasanjo, government and UN officials, as well as representatives of humanitarian groups.
Analysts said the truce was an important step but urged the government to act quickly to ease humanitarian access to Tigray.
“The unconditional and unrestricted delivery of aid could also help create enough trust to pave the way for ceasefire talks and, eventually, dialogue,” said William Davison, the International Crisis Group’s senior Ethiopia analyst.
Aid workers and rights groups have long sounded the alarm about the conditions in Tigray, with the UN humanitarian agency OCHA on Friday warning that food supplies were running perilously low.
More than 9 million people need food aid across northern Ethiopia, the UN says, but humanitarian organisations have been forced to curtail activities because of fuel and supply shortages.
Sarah Jackson, Amnesty International’s deputy director for east Africa, asked both sides “to seize this opportunity to avoid worsening the humanitarian catastrophe that is unfolding in Tigray”.
“All parties to the conflict must immediately allow humanitarian aid workers uninterrupted access to all conflict-affected areas of northern Ethiopia, including Afar and Amhara,” she said.