NAIROBI, Kenya – Ethiopia’s government on Monday declared an immediate, unilateral ceasefire in the Tigray region after nearly eight months of deadly conflict as Tigray fighters occupied the region’s capital and government soldiers withdrew in a region where hundreds of thousands are suffering the worst the world suffering from famine crisis.
The ceasefire could calm a war that has destabilized Africa’s second most populous country and threatens to do the same in the Horn of Africa, where Ethiopia is considered a key security ally of the West. It comes as the country waits for the results of the national elections, which Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed described as the centerpiece of the reforms that earned him the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.
Since the fighting broke out in Tigray in November, Abiy’s transition from peace to warrior has shocked many observers. Since then, the world has struggled to gain access to much of the region and to investigate mounting allegations of atrocities such as gang rape and forced starvation. Thousands of people in the region of 6 million were killed.
Ethiopia’s declaration was circulated by state media shortly after the federal government-appointed interim administration Tigray fled the regional capital Mekele and called for a ceasefire on humanitarian grounds so that urgently needed aid can be provided.
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UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement that he had spoken to the Prime Minister and “I hope the hostilities will cease effectively.”
Meanwhile, Mekele residents cheered for the first time since the city was captured by Ethiopian troops in late November, and Abiy declared victory over the return of Tigray troops. The 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 waging a guerrilla war on the region’s rough terrain.
As Tigray troops occupied the airport and other key positions in Mekele and aired a message urging residents to stop partying and go home, retreating Ethiopian soldiers shot at Mekele University students, killing two and wounding them three, said a nurse at Ayder Hospital, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
Ethnic Tigrayans, even those who did not support the former ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front before the war, say they have been severely attacked for alleged links to Tigray fighters. Ethiopia has denied this.
But Abiy in an interview aired last week alarmed observers by recalling that aid to Tigray during the devastating famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s had strengthened the Tigray fighters who eventually overthrew the ruling regime. Something like that will “never happen” now, he said.
Monday’s ceasefire declaration signaled a new approach, at least for a while.
The ceasefire “will allow peasants to cultivate their land, aid groups operate without military movements, and deal with remnants (of Tigray’s former ruling party) seeking peace,” the Ethiopia statement said, adding that efforts to Tigray’s former leader “Justice” continues.
Ethiopia said the ceasefire would last until the end of the crucial planting season in Tigray. The end of the season comes in September. The government ordered all federal and regional authorities to uphold the ceasefire – crucial as authorities and militants from the neighboring Amhara region were accused of the atrocities in western Tigray.
“The government has a responsibility to find a political solution to the problem,” said the head of the interim administration, Abraham Belay, calling for the ceasefire and adding that some elements in Tigray’s former ruling party were willing to work with the federal government.
There was no immediate response from the Tigray fighters with whom Ethiopia had declined to speak. And there was no immediate comment from neighboring Eritrea, whose soldiers were accused by Tigray residents of some of the worst atrocities of the war.
“If Abiy has a serious desire to find a political solution, he must first undo the terrorist labeling against the elected government of Tigray,” said Desta Haileselassie Hagos, who is trying to compile a list of those killed in the war. Abiy must also order the Eritrean soldiers to leave, he said.
Tigray has seen some of the most violent fighting in the conflict in the past few days. International pressure on Ethiopia increased again last week after more than 60 people were killed in a military air strike on a busy market and MSF said three employees were murdered in a separate incident.
Amid the unrest on Monday, the United Nations Children’s Fund said Ethiopian soldiers broke into their office in Mekele and dismantled satellite communications equipment, an act that violated the immunity of the world organization. UNICEF warned last week that at least 33,000 severely malnourished children are “at risk of death” with no more help reaching Tigray’s people.
The United States, Great Britain and Ireland called for an open emergency meeting of the Security Council at the UN headquarters in New York. The most powerful body in the United Nations discussed Tigray behind closed doors, but not in an open session. You need the support of nine of the 15 councilors to hold an open session.