NAIROBI: Negotiators from the Ethiopian government and Tigrayan rebel authorities were preparing for peace talks in South Africa on Monday aimed at finding a peaceful solution to the brutal two-year war.
The African Union-led negotiations were announced to begin on Monday, after an upsurge in fighting sparked alarm in the international community.
Kindeya Gebrehiwot, spokesman for the rebel authorities in Tigray, announced the arrival of their delegation in South Africa in a tweet on Sunday evening.
“Pressure: immediate cessation of hostilities, unhindered humanitarian access and 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 Ethiopian government views the talks as an opportunity to peacefully resolve the conflict and consolidate the improvement in the situation on the ground”.
But he also said his forces “have continued to take control of major urban centers in recent days”, without identifying them.
Last week, the government pledged to take control of airports and other federal sites in Tigray from the rebels as Ethiopian and Eritrean troops seized towns in the region, including the strategic town of Shire, making flee civilians.
Fighting resumed in August, breaking a five-month truce, and saw the return of the Eritrean army in support of 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, according to the United States, up to half a million dead.
The South African government itself has not confirmed the talks or disclosed a location.
Abiy, who sent troops to Tigray in November 2020 promising a quick victory over the dissident leaders of the northern region within the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, said on Thursday that the war “would end and the peace would prevail”.
“Ethiopia will be peaceful, we will not keep fighting forever,” 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 warring parties to the negotiating table.
The return to the battlefield in August halted desperately needed aid to 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 restricted.
The UN Security Council held a closed-door meeting on Friday to discuss spiraling conflict and fears for civilians caught in the crossfire.
US envoy to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said after the talks that thousands of Ethiopian, Eritrean and Tigrayan forces were engaged in active combat.
“The scale of fighting and death rivals what we see in Ukraine, and innocent civilians are caught in the crossfire,” she said.
“In two years of conflict, up to 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 while reliable data was scarce, it estimated fighting since August alone may have involved more than half a million fighters and killed tens of thousands.
“By most estimates, this is one of the deadliest conflicts in the world,” he said in a report on Friday.
The IGC’s senior analyst in Ethiopia, William Davison, said the planned talks were a “positive development”, but warned that “major obstacles to peace remain”, including the attempted takeover by the Government of Tigray Federal Facilities.
“The first objective of the mediators is therefore to try to get the Federal and Tigrayan delegations to agree to a truce despite the momentum towards continued military confrontation,” he said.
The AU Peace and Security Council also met on Friday, saying it welcomed “mutual commitments to genuinely engage in the peace process” and hoped for a “successful outcome”.
The AU mediation team for the talks was expected 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 which has resisted central power, of attacking military camps.