Ethiopia rivals gear up for South Africa peace talks

NAIROBI: Negotiators from the Ethiopian government and Tigrayan rebel authorities were on Monday ready for peace talks in South Africa to find a peaceful solution to the brutal two-year war.

The African Union-led negotiations were marked to start on Monday, after a surge in fighting that sparked alarm in the international community.

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

“Press: immediate cessation of hostilities, unrestricted humanitarian access & withdrawal of Eritrean forces. There can be no military solution!” he added.

Addis Ababa said in a statement that its delegation left for South Africa on Monday morning, adding: “The government of Ethiopia sees the talks as an opportunity to resolve the conflict peacefully and improve the situation on the ground consolidate.”

But it also said its forces “continued to take control of major urban centers in recent days,” without identifying them.

Last week, the government vowed to take control of airports and other federal sites in Tigray from the rebels, as Ethiopian and Eritrean troops captured towns in the region including the strategic town of Shire, which saw civilians fleeing.

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Fighting resumed in August, shattering a five-month ceasefire, and saw the return of the Eritrean army to support Ethiopian forces and their regional allies.

In two years, the conflict in Africa’s second most populous country has left millions in need of humanitarian aid and, after the United States, as many as half a million dead.

The South African government itself has not confirmed the talks or revealed a location.

Abiy, who sent troops to Tigray in November 2020 and promises a quick victory over the dissident leader of the northern region and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, said on Thursday that the war “would end and peace would prevail.”

“Ethiopia will be peaceful, we will not continue fighting indefinitely,” said Abiy, who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.

International calls for a ceasefire and a withdrawal of Eritrean troops have grown since the AU failed earlier this month to bring the warring sides to the negotiating table.

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The return to the battlefield in August halted desperately needed aid for Tigray’s 6 million people, who lack food, medicine and basic services.

Tigray has been under a communications blackout for more than a year, and independent reporting from the region has been severely curtailed.

The UN Security Council held a closed-door meeting on Friday to discuss the spiraling conflict and fears for civilians caught in the crossfire.

The US envoy to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said after the talks that thousands of Ethiopian, Eritrean and Tigrayan forces are engaged in active fighting.

“The scale of fighting and deaths rival what we are seeing in Ukraine, and innocent civilians are being caught in the crossfire,” she said.

“Over two years of conflict, as many as half a million — half a million — people have died, and the United States is deeply concerned about the potential for further mass atrocities.”

The International Crisis Group think tank said that while reliable data was scarce, it believed the fighting since August alone had involved more than half a million fighters and killed tens of thousands of people.

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“According to most estimates, it is among the world’s deadliest conflicts,” it said in a report Friday.

The IGC’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 attempt at federal facilities in Tigray.

“The first objective for mediators is therefore to try to get the federal and Tigray delegations to agree to a ceasefire despite the momentum towards further military confrontation,” he said.

The AU Peace and Security Council also met on Friday, saying it “welcomed the mutual commitments to genuinely participate in the peace process” and hoped for a “fruitful outcome”.

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

The conflict began two years ago when Abiy sent troops into Tigray, accusing the TPLF, the region’s ruling party that opposes the central authority, of attacking army camps.

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