Tigrayan forces announce retreat amid hopes of ceasefire with Ethiopian government

Tigrayan forces fighting the central government have withdrawn from neighbouring regions in Ethiopia's north a step towards a possible ceasefire after major territorial gains by the Ethiopian military.

Villagers return from a market to Yechila town in south central Tigray walking past scores of burned vehicles, in Tigray, Ethiopia, July 10, 2021.
Villagers return from a market to Yechila town in south central Tigray walking past scores of burned vehicles, in Tigray, Ethiopia, July 10, 2021. © REUTERS/Giulia Paravicini

The 13-month-old war in Ethiopia has destabilised an already fragile region, sent 60,000 refugees into Sudan, pulled Ethiopian soldiers away from war-ravaged Somalia and drawn in armed forces from neighbouring Eritrea.

On Monday, Getachew Reda, a spokesman for the Tigray People's Liberation Front - the political party controlling most of the northerly region of Tigray - said on Twitter: "We have just completed the withdrawal of our forces from both Amhara and Afar regions."

Getachew added that the TPLF hoped the retreat would motivate the international community to put pressure on the governments of Ethiopia and neighbouring Eritrea - both allies in the conflict - to cease military operations in Tigray.

TPLF outlines its demands 

TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael called for a no-fly zone for hostile aircraft over Tigray, arms embargoes on Ethiopia and Eritrea, and a U.N. mechanism to verify that external armed forces have left Tigray - all requests that the Ethiopian government is likely to oppose.

"We trust that our bold act of withdrawal will be a decisive opening for peace," Debretsion wrote in a letter to the United Nations outlining the TPLF's demands.

Ethiopian government spokesperson Legesse Tulu and the prime minister's spokesperson, Billene Seyoum, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A U.N. spokesman said Debretsion's letter was being studied and he had no immediate comment beyond that. 

Rare opportunity for peace

Thousands of civilians have been killed as a result of the conflict, around 400,000 are facing famine in Tigray and 9.4 million people need food aid across northern Ethiopia.

Debretsion said he hoped the Tigrayan withdrawal would force the international community to ensure that food aid could enter Tigray.

The United Nations previously accused the government of operating a de facto blockade - a charge Addis Ababa has denied.

The TPLF accuses Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of wanting to centralise power at the expense of Ethiopia's regions. Abiy denies the accusation.

Abiy, whose appointment in 2018 brought nearly three decades of TPLF dominance over Ethiopia to an end, says the TPLF wanted to hang onto central power - something the Tigrayan leadership denies.

Trust building measures required

International mediators including the African Union and United States have repeatedly tried to negotiate a ceasefire to allow aid to enter Tigray, but both sides have refused until certain conditions were met.

In June, the Ethiopian and Eritrean militaries withdrew from Tigray after reports of mass killings of civilians, gang rapes and blocking of aid supplies.

The government has said it has prosecuted individual soldiers, although it has provided no details, and denied blocking aid.

In July, Tigrayan forces invaded Afar and Amhara. The Ethiopian military launched an offensive at the end of November that pushed the Tigrayan forces back hundreds of kilometres.

Local residents in Amhara have reported abuses such as killings and rapes by Tigrayan fighters.

The TPLF has said any soldiers found guilty would be punished.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Keep up to date with international news by downloading the RFI app