NAIROBI, Kenya – The Ethiopian government on Monday declared an immediate unilateral ceasefire in its Tigray region after nearly eight months of deadly conflict as Tigray fighters occupied the regional capital and government troops retreated to a region where hundreds of thousands of people suffer in the worst conditions in the world famine crisis.
The ceasefire could calm a war that has destabilized Africa’s second most populous country and threatened to do the same in the Horn of Africa, where Ethiopia is seen as a key security ally for the ‘West. It comes as the country awaits the results of the national elections that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has promoted as the centerpiece of the reforms that have won him the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.
Abiy’s transformation from peace to war has dismayed many observers since the fighting in Tigray erupted in November. Since then, the world has struggled to gain access to much of the region and investigate growing allegations of atrocities, including gang rapes and forced starvation. Thousands of people in the region of 6 million have been killed.
Ethiopia’s statement was relayed by state media shortly after the federally appointed interim administration of Tigray fled the regional capital, Mekele, and called for a ceasefire. on humanitarian grounds so that desperately needed aid can be delivered.
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UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in a statement that he had spoken to the Prime Minister and “I hope that an effective cessation of hostilities will take place.”
Meanwhile, residents of Mekele applauded the return of Tigray’s forces for the first time since Ethiopian troops captured the city in late November and Abiy declared victory. Tigray fighters, loyal to the former regional ruling party that dominated the Ethiopian government for years before being sidelined by the new prime minister, undermined the declaration by leading a guerrilla war over the rugged terrain of the region.
As Tigray forces occupied the airport and other key positions in Mekele and broadcast a message telling residents to stop celebrating and return home, retreating Ethiopian soldiers fired at university students. de Mekele, killing two and injuring three, said a nurse at Ayder Hospital, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Ethnic Tigrayans, even those who did not support the former Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray in power before the war, say they have been severely targeted for alleged links to Tigray fighters. Ethiopia denied it.
But Abiy, in an interview broadcast last week, alarmed observers by recalling that aid to Tigray during the devastating 1980s famine in Ethiopia had strengthened Tigray fighters who ultimately overthrew the ruling regime. Such a thing “will never happen” now, he said.
Monday’s ceasefire declaration marked a new approach, at least for a while.
The ceasefire “will allow farmers to cultivate their land, aid groups to operate without any military movement and engage with remnants (of the former ruling party of Tigray) who seek peace Ethiopia’s statement said, adding that efforts to bring Tigray’s former rulers “to justice” continue.
Ethiopia has said the ceasefire will last until the end of the crucial planting season in Tigray. The end of the season arrives in September. The government has ordered all federal and regional authorities to respect the ceasefire – crucial as authorities and fighters in the neighboring Amhara region have been accused of atrocities in western Tigray.
“The government has a responsibility to find a political solution to the problem,” said interim administration chief Abraham Belay, calling for a ceasefire, adding that certain elements within the former ruling party of Tigray were willing to engage with the federal government.
There was no immediate comment from fighters in Tigray, with whom Ethiopia had rejected talks. And there was no immediate comment from neighboring Eritrea, whose soldiers have been accused by Tigray residents of some of the war’s worst atrocities.
“If Abiy has a genuine desire to find a political solution, he must first undo the terrorist label against the elected government of Tigray,” said Desta Haileselassie Hagos, who is leading efforts to compile a list of those killed during the war. Abiy must also order the Eritrean soldiers to leave, he said.
Tigray has seen some of the fiercest fighting in the conflict in recent days. International pressure on Ethiopia increased again last week after a military airstrike in a busy market killed more than 60 people, and after Doctors Without Borders said three staff were murdered during from another incident.
Amid Monday’s upheaval, the United Nations children’s agency said Ethiopian soldiers entered its office in Mekele and dismantled satellite communications equipment, an act it said violated the immunity of the world organism. UNICEF warned last week that at least 33,000 severely malnourished children were at “imminent risk of death” without more aid reaching the people of Tigray.
At UN headquarters in New York, the US, UK and Ireland called for an emergency public meeting of the Security Council. The most powerful body of the UN discussed Tigray behind closed doors but not in open session. They need the support of nine of the 15 board members to hold a public meeting.