Ethiopia’s government on Thursday declared “an indefinite humanitarian truce effective immediately”, saying it hoped to help hasten the delivery of emergency aid into the Tigray region, where hundreds of thousands face starvation.
Since war broke out in northern Ethiopia 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.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government “is committed to exert maximum effort to facilitate the free flow of emergency humanitarian aid into the Tigray region,” it said in a statement.
“To optimise the success of the humanitarian truce, the government calls upon the insurgents in Tigray to desist from all acts of further aggression and withdraw from areas they have occupied in neighbouring regions,” it said.
“The government of Ethiopia hopes that this truce will substantially improve the humanitarian situation on the ground and pave the way for the resolution of the conflict in the northern Ethiopia without further bloodshed.”
The conflict erupted when Abiy sent troops into Tigray to topple the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the region’s former ruling party, saying the move came in response to rebel attacks on army camps.
Fighting has dragged on for over a year, triggering a humanitarian crisis, as accounts have emerged of mass rapes and massacres, with both sides accused of human rights violations.
More than 400,000 people have been displaced in Tigray, according to the UN.
The region 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 percent of the people in Tigray, a region of six million people, face “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.
There was no immediate reaction from the TPLF to the government’s announcement.
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Western nations have been urging both sides to agree to a ceasefire, with the United States, the UK and Canada hailing the truce declaration.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States “urges all parties to build on this announcement to advance a negotiated and sustainable ceasefire, including necessary security arrangements.”
Diplomats led by Olusegun Obasanjo, the African Union’s special envoy for the Horn of Africa, have been trying for months to broker peace talks, with little evident progress so far.
Analysts said the truce was an important step but urged the government to follow up the announcement with action and 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 analyst for Ethiopia.
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More than nine million people need food aid across Afar, Amhara and Tigray, according to the UN’s World Food Programme.
But humanitarian organisations have been forced to increasingly curtail activities because of fuel and supply shortages.
“WFP operations in the Tigray region have ground to a halt, with only emergency fuel stocks and less than one percent of the required food stocks remaining,” the agency said this week.
A TPLF push into Afar has worsened the situation, driving up the need for emergency aid in the region.
The road from Afar’s capital, Semera, to Tigray’s capital Mekele is the only operational land route into Tigray, where the UN estimates hundreds of thousands are living in famine-like conditions.
The government previously declared a “unilateral ceasefire” in Tigray in June last year, after the TPLF mounted a shock comeback and retook the region from federal forces.
But fighting intensified in the second half of 2021, with the rebels at one point claiming to be within 200 kilometres (125 miles) of the capital Addis Ababa, before reaching a stalemate.