The capture of the capital of Tigray, Mekelle, by Ethiopian forces in late November was represented by the government in Addis Ababa as the final blow to forces loyal to the former government of the northern region.
But on June 29, seven months after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared victory, his troops freed Mekelle amid defeats on the battlefield following the launch of a major counteroffensive by Tigrayan forces. .
Hours after the evacuation of the city, Ethiopia announced that it had put in place a unilateral ceasefire, apparently for humanitarian reasons.
“The main objective of the ceasefire is to facilitate the delivery of aid and to allow farmers to grow their crops in peace,” explains Abraham Belay, head of Tigray’s now-defunct interim administration, in a speech on state television shortly after the shooting.
The statement came when Ethiopia faced growing international pressure on credible reports of extrajudicial killings, widespread rape and famine-like conditions in Tigray, where the UN estimates that more than 90 percent of its six million inhabitants need emergency food aid.
He instilled hope that after eight months of brutal warfare, the region could see an arrest in the fighting. But the day of the recovery of the Ethiopian army by Mekelle, the telephone lines in Tigray, and the limited internet access used by aid organizations for their operations, were interrupted.
Subsequently, reports were published that a bridge over the Tekeze River, a key crossing point for aid deliveries in Tigray, had been destroyed. Both warring factions exchanged guilt.
Developments continue to impede aid deliveries to affected populations, including some of the two million people internally displaced by the war.
“We are extremely concerned about access restrictions in and out of Tigray with Shire and Mekelle airports closed and some roads connecting Tigray blocked, particularly the road between Shire and Debark where we have an operational base in the Amhara region,” he said. said Neven Crvenković, spokesman for the UN refugee agency in Ethiopia.
“The destruction of the bridge across the Tekeze River has made this road impractical – this is seriously affecting our ability to move in personnel, support materials and basic furniture such as food, fuel and money.”
Aside from the acts of sabotage, the rhetoric of the warring factions has hardly been reconciled since the capture of Mekelle by troops loyal to the regional party of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which have recently been renamed as Tigray Defense Forces (TDF).
TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda had openly threatened to send Tigrayan forces into Eritrea, as his troops were entering Tigray in support of Abiy’s army. “Our primary focus is to degrade enemy fighting capabilities,” he told Reuters news agency.
Following the retreat from Mekelle, Eritrean soldiers similarly raided a number of cities in Tigray, including Axum and Shiraro, which they had held for months.
Ethiopian army lieutenant general Bacha Debele warned at a press conference in Addis Ababa last week: “If it is provoked, [the army] could walk on Mekelle even today. But if we go back, the damage will be much worse than before. ”
For months, Tigrayan officials have shown an openness to negotiating the end of the war. After initially dismissing the federal government’s unilateral statement as a “joke,” the TPLF on Sunday filed a list of conditions for discussions to cease fire.
But several requests, including a request that Addis Ababa recognize the TPLF region’s rule, are almost certain to be rejected.
“Neither the Ethiopian government nor the TPLF has made significant commitments to make this opening possible,” Judd Devermont, director of the U.S. Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Al Jazeera.
“There is still a considerable obstacle to providing humanitarian access and persistent concerns about human rights abuses committed by all parties.”
Despite seemingly uncompromising stances, and previous refusals by the Ethiopian government to negotiate with members of the TPLF, which was designated a “terrorist” group by the Mayan Ethiopian parliament, there is at least one possible path for tertiary mediators to look out for: prisoners.
On July 2, thousands of apparently imprisoned Ethiopian soldiers were paraded through Mekelle on their way to a holding facility in the city. Head TPLF Debretsion Gebremichael he said The New York Times reported that low-ranking soldiers will be released, but officers and other commanders will remain in custody.
“The number of prisoners [prisoners of war] Today, the host has exceeded 8,000, and they could even grow, “Fesseha Tessema, an adviser to the TPLF and a former Ethiopian diplomat, told Al Jazeera. to help us provide food for all. “
In a statement by mail 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 is yet to reach the TPLF because of its allegedly captured troops. Abiy’s press secretary, Billene Seyoum, did not immediately respond to an email inquiry into the POWs. Ethiopian officials and state media have not made any statements on the matter.
For its part, the Ethiopian government is said to hold hundreds – and perhaps more – of ethnic Tigris members of the Ethiopian army, detained in the early days of the war on suspicion that they had mounted a mutiny. A negotiated release of the prisoners by the two sides could open the door to preliminary discussions to establish a concrete ceasefire.
Another factor that could lead to tougher positions is the fatigue of war. U.S. Senator Chris Coons said Prime Minister Abiy had said at the end of last year that the war would end in six weeks.
But the struggle has become long and extinct, and has eventually led to the United States slapping Ethiopia and Eritrea with economic sanctions and visa restrictions.
Last week, Abiy said his government had spent more than $ 100 billion ($ 2.3 billion) on rehabilitation and food aid for the region, not counting the cost of the military campaign – at the same time. national instability and the coronavirus pandemic have dealt a serious blow to the country’s finances.
“It will take the Ethiopian economy several years, perhaps more than a decade, to recover and return to its first war status,” predicted Ayele Gelan, a research economist at the Kuwait Institute for Research. Scientific.
“Even what is officially reported is a huge underestimation of the actual monetary costs of the war. We have to count the money spent not only over the last eight months, but also in decades to build the destroyed assets. The cost of capital in Tigray it is not only military activity, but also includes destroyed roads, bridges, houses, farms ”.
Analysts say the TDF would probably retreat from the big cities back into the mountains if the conventional war were to erupt again. The eruption of fresh hostilities will prove especially disastrous for hundreds of thousands of people who claim to be on the verge of starvation and further decimate the region.
With the rainy season underway in Ethiopia, a fighting break would have been strategic for both factions at war – with or without a ceasefire. There is a possibility that the armies could use this period to recover, rearm and redistribute as soon as conditions become dry again.
The 1998-2000 Ethiopian-Eritrean border war, which killed tens of thousands of people, also saw calm fighting during the rainy season in Ethiopia that begins in June and ends in late August or early August. September. Both sides used these periods to train fighters or dig trenches before resuming fighting.
The Ethiopian government has stated itself that its unilateral ceasefire expires in September, raising fears that the Allied coalition will use the rainy season as a recovery period, ahead of planned renewed offensives. On paper, it could mean that the international community has only about two months to seal a definitive ceasefire.
“The imperative for all parties must now be to facilitate access for relief convoys, increasing the delivery of food aid to millions of Tigraians and ensuring that farmers can plow and plant when the rainy season approaches. put in place, ”the International Crisis Group said in a statement statement Friday.
“They should pursue political reconciliation in due course.”