Tigrayan forces fighting the central government are withdrawing from neighbouring regions in Ethiopia’s north, a Tigrayan forces spokesperson said on Monday, a step towards a possible ceasefire after major territorial gains by the Ethiopian military.
The 13-month-old war in Africa’s second most populous nation has destabilised an already fragile region, sent 60,000 refugees into Sudan, pulled Ethiopian soldiers away from war-ravaged Somalia and sucked in armed forces from neighbouring Eritrea.
“We trust that our bold act of withdrawal will be a decisive opening for peace,” wrote Debretsion Gebremichael, head of the rebellious Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the political party controlling most of the northern region of Tigray.
His letter to the United Nations also called for a no-fly zone for hostile aircraft over Tigray, arms embargoes on Ethiopia and its ally Eritrea, and a United Nations (U.N.) mechanism to verify that external armed forces have withdrawn from Tigray – all requests that the Ethiopian government is likely to oppose.
Ethiopian government spokesperson, Legesse Tulu, and the prime minister’s spokesperson, Billene Seyoum, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
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.
Will Davison, senior analyst for Ethiopia at the International Crisis Group think tank, said the TPLF letter represented a “significant opportunity for peace talks”.
“There are reasons to think this rare opportunity might lead to a peace process and cessation of hostilities,” he said.
A significant shift in the Tigrayan position, he said, was the abandonment of their demand that hostile forces withdraw from Western Tigray as a precondition for peace talks, as well as a concession that this could come about as part of an internationally backed peace process.
Any Tigrayan demand to keep their forces intact might be hard for the Ethiopian government to swallow, he said, but a gradual process might be possible.
He added that other trust-building measures might be under way, such as the federal government releasing jailed political leaders.