The capture of the capital Tigray, Mekelle, by Ethiopian forces in late November was described by the government in Addis Ababa as the final blow to forces loyal to the former government in the northern region.
But on June 29, seven months after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared victory, his troops vacated Mekelle amid defeats on the battlefield following the launch of a major counter-offensive by Tigrinya forces.
Hours after the evacuation of the city, Ethiopia announced that it had enacted a unilateral ceasefire, apparently for humanitarian reasons.
“The main purpose of the ceasefire is to facilitate aid deliveries and allow farmers to cultivate their crops in peace,” Abraham Belay, leader of the now-defunct Tigray interim administration, said in a speech to state television shortly after taking control.
The statement came as Ethiopia faced growing international pressure on the basis of credible reports of extrajudicial killings, widespread violations and similar famine conditions in Tigray, where the United Nations estimates that more than 90 percent of its six million inhabitants need emergency food aid.
He instilled some hope that after eight months of brutal warfare, the region could be stalled in fighting. But on the day of Mekelle’s withdrawal from the Ethiopian army, telephone lines through Tigray were disrupted, as well as limited Internet access used by aid organizations for their operations.
Then came reports that a bridge over the Tekeze River had been destroyed, a key crossing point for delivering aid to Tigray. The two warring factions denied guilt.
Developments continue to make it difficult to deliver aid to affected populations, including some of the two million people internally displaced by the war.
“We are extremely concerned about access limitations inside and outside Tigray with Shire and Mekelle airports closed and some roads connecting Tigray blocked, in particular the road between Shire and Debark, where we have an operational base in the Amhara region. said Neven Crvenković, a spokesman for the UN refugee agency in Ethiopia.
“The destruction of the bridge across the Tekeze River has made this road impassable; this is severely affecting our ability to move staff, relief supplies and basic supplies such as food, fuel and cash.”
Aside from acts of sabotage, the rhetoric of the warring factions has hardly reconciled since the capture of Mekelle by troops loyal to the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) regional party, which recently they have been renamed the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF).
TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda has openly threatened to send Tigrinya forces to Eritrea, whose troops had entered Tigray in support of Abyy’s army. “Our main goal is to degrade enemy combat capabilities,” he told Reuters news agency.
After Mekelle’s withdrawal, Eritrean soldiers similarly left several cities in Tigray, including Axum and Shiraro, which they had maintained for months.
Ethiopian Army Lieutenant General Bacha Debele, however, warned at a news conference in Addis Ababa last week: “If provoked, [the army] could march against Mekelle even today. But if we return, the damage will be much worse than before.
For months, Tigrayan officials had expressed their openness to negotiate the end of the war. After initially dismissing the federal government’s unilateral declaration as a “joke,” the TPLF filed Sunday a list of conditions for ceasefire conversations.
But some of the demands, including the demand that Addis Ababa recognize dominance of the region by the TPLF, are almost certain to be rejected.
“Neither the Ethiopian government nor the TPLF has made significant commitments to fulfill this openness,” Judd Devermont, director of the Africa Program at the U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Al Jazeera.
“There are still considerable barriers to providing humanitarian access and persistent concerns about human rights abuses committed by all parties.”
Despite the seemingly uncompromising stances and previous refusals of the Ethiopian government to negotiate with members of the TPLF, which was designated a “terrorist” group by the Ethiopian parliament in May, there is at least one possible way to focus on possible third-party mediators: prisoners.
On July 2, thousands of apparently captive Ethiopian soldiers were paraded by Mekelle on their way to an exploitation center in the city. TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael he said The New York Times says low-ranking soldiers would be released, but officers and other commanders would remain detained.
“The number of prisoners of war [prisoners of war] We are currently hosting more than 8,000, and they can still increase, “FPLESha Tessema, an adviser to the TPLF and a former Ethiopian diplomat, told Al Jazeera. eat them for all of them “.
In an emailed statement to Al Jazeera, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross declined to comment on the matter.
According to Fesseha, the Ethiopian government has not yet reached the TPLF because of its allegedly captured troops. Abyy’s press secretary, Billene Seyoum, did not immediately respond to an emailed inquiry about the prisoners of war. Ethiopian officials and state media have not made any statements in this regard.
For its part, the Ethiopian government is said to own hundreds (and possibly more) of Ethiopian ethnic members of the Ethiopian army, arrested the first days of the war with the suspicion that they would mount a riot. A negotiated release of prisoners from both sides could open the door to preliminary talks on establishing a specific ceasefire.
Another factor that could weaken hardened positions is war fatigue. U.S. Senator Chris Coons said Prime Minister Abiy told him that by the end of last year the war would end in six weeks.
But the fighting went on for a long time and spread and eventually caused the United States to strike Ethiopia and Eritrea with economic sanctions and visa restrictions.
Abiy said last week that his government had spent more than 100 billion birrs ($ 2.3 billion) on food aid and rehabilitation for the region, not including the cost of the military campaign, at a time when instability and the coronavirus pandemic have suffered a serious blow to the country’s finances.
“Ethiopia’s economy will take several years, perhaps more than a decade, to recover and return to its pre-war state,” predicted Ayele Gelan, a research economist at the Institute of Kuwait Scientific Research.
“Even what is officially reported is a huge underestimation of the real monetary costs of the war. We should count the money spent not only over the last eight months, but also for decades, to build the destroyed assets. The cost of capital in Tigray is not only military assets, but also includes destroyed roads, bridges, houses, farms.
Analysts say the TDF would probably have to retreat from large cities to the mountains if conventional warfare erupted again. The eruption of new hostilities would be especially disastrous for hundreds of thousands of people who are said to be on the verge of starvation and will further delineate the region.
With the rainy season underway in Ethiopia, a break in fighting would have been strategic for the two warring factions, with or without a ceasefire. There is a possibility that armies may use this period to recover, rearm, and deploy again as soon as conditions dry up again.
The 1998-2000 border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which killed tens of thousands, also calmed down during Ethiopia’s rainy season, which begins in June and ends in late August or early September. Both sides used these periods to train fighters or dig trenches before resuming fighting.
The Ethiopian government has stated that its unilateral ceasefire would do so they expire in September, raising fears that the Allied coalition will use the rainy season as a period of recovery, ahead of planned renewed offensives. On paper, it could mean that the international community only has about two months to seal a definitive ceasefire.
“The imperative for all parties must now be to facilitate access to relief convoys, increasing the delivery of food aid to millions of tigrayans and ensuring that farmers can plow and plant as the season begins. of rain, “the international crisis group said. statement Friday.
“They should also pursue political reconciliation in time.”