Tigray rebels agree 'cessation of hostilities'
Tigrayan rebels agreed to a "cessation of hostilities" on Friday, a new turning point in the nearly 17-month war in northern Ethiopia following 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, Prime Minister 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" in northern Ethiopia.
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 for well over a year, 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 percent 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.
- Ceasefire efforts -
The US, the European Union, the African Union, and China hailed the truce declaration.
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."
"A positive proposal immediately reciprocated, which makes it a very positive trend to be encouraged and supported," EU ambassador to Ethiopia, Roland Kobia, said on Twitter.
African Union Commission head Moussa Faki Mahamat reiterated a call for "a negotiated permanent comprehensive ceasefire", urging AU envoy to the Horn of Africa Olusegun Obasanjo to continue efforts to broker peace talks.
Wu Peng, the head of the Africa department at China's foreign ministry, said on Twitter that Beijing "welcomes the humanitarian truce by the Ethiopian government to ensure the access for humanitarian aid to Tigray."
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.
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.
- Famine-like conditions -
Analysts said the truce was an important step but urged the government to act quickly 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 Ethiopia analyst.
More than nine million people need food aid across northern Ethiopia, the UN says, but humanitarian organisations have been forced to increasingly curtail activities because of fuel and supply shortages.
"Food distribution in Tigray has reached an all-time low since March 2021 as food stocks are almost depleted," with only about 68,000 people -- barely one percent of the population -- assisted between 10 and 16 March, the UN humanitarian agency OCHA said Friday.
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 before expanding into Amhara and Afar.
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.