Authorities in the rebel-held Tigray region of Ethiopia announced on Sunday that they would respect a ceasefire as fighting intensified in the war-torn north of the country, and the African Union called for an immediate ceasefire.
International concern is growing over the fate of Shire, a town of 100,000 inhabitants in northwestern Tigray, where Ethiopian and Eritrean forces have launched a joint offensive and civilian casualties have been reported.
UN chief Antonio Guterres has joined the United States and other Western powers in expressing alarm over the worsening violence and calling for a peaceful settlement of “this catastrophic conflict”.
The government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the authorities of Tigrayan have accepted an invitation from the AU to talk, but negotiations planned for last weekend in South Africa failed to get off the ground and no new date has been announced.
On Sunday, the AU commission chair, Moussa Faki Mahamat, urged the warring parties to “re-enter dialogue under their agreement to organize direct talks in South Africa”.
“The chairman strongly calls for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire and the resumption of humanitarian services” to the areas closed off by the fighting, Faki said in a statement released Sunday but dated Saturday.
Authorities in Tigray, which has been under rebel control since government forces were ousted in June 2021, welcomed the statement and said they would respect an internationally backed ceasefire.
“We are ready to commit to an immediate cessation of hostilities,” the statement said.
“We also call on the international community to force the Eritrean army to withdraw from Tigray, take practical steps to immediately end hostilities and urge the Ethiopian government to come to the negotiating table.”
A spokesman for the government of Ethiopia did not respond to a request for comment when AFP contacted him.
International alarm over the latest fighting came when US special envoy Mike Hammer arrived in Addis Ababa to push for a peaceful solution to nearly two years of war.
Fighting resumed in August after a five-month lull, dwindling hopes for a resolution to a conflict that has left untold numbers of civilians dead and marked by atrocities on all sides.
“Working intensively with the African Union and other partners to kick-start an AU-led peace process in the coming days,” the Africa Office of the US State Department posted on Twitter on Sunday.
The talks would be brokered by Olusegun Obasanjo, the AU’s envoy to the Horn of Africa, former South Africa Vice President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, and former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Diplomats suggested that logistical problems were partly responsible for the cancellation of last weekend’s long-awaited meeting in South Africa.
New offensives on multiple fronts have halted much-needed aid in Tigray, where millions have fled their homes and hundreds of thousands are near starvation, according to the UN.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC), an aid organization providing aid to Tigray, announced on Saturday that one of its employees was one of three civilians killed in an attack in Shire, while another was injured.
The World Food Program (WFP) said Sunday it received reports of Friday’s attack near where the IRC was distributing food “to WFP beneficiaries, including vulnerable mothers and children”.
“WFP condemns any deliberate targeting of humanitarian activities” and calls on all parties to respect international law, a WFP spokesperson in Ethiopia told AFP in a statement.
Shire has been “subject to continued heavy artillery and air strikes all week” and civilians are on the run, a humanitarian worker in the city told AFP on condition of anonymity.
US aid worker Samantha Power said of the escalating conflict in northern Ethiopia that “the risk of further atrocities and loss of life is increasing, especially around Shire”.
“Recent indiscriminate attacks by the Ethiopian National Armed Forces and the Eritrean Armed Forces in Shire, and reports that Eritrean forces may soon take control of civilian population centers are deeply disturbing,” Power wrote on Twitter on Sunday.
Eritrea sided with Ethiopia when the war started in November 2020 after Abiy accused Tigray’s dissident ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), of attacking army camps.
Eritrea is a historical enemy of the TPLF, which dominated Ethiopia’s ruling coalition until Abiy came to power in 2018, and its forces have been accused of mass rape and murder in Tigray.
Eritrea’s return to the conflict has “made matters considerably worse” and they must leave Ethiopia, Hammer said.
Eritrea says it is becoming “scapegoat” and has accused the US and others of turning a blind eye to TPLF atrocities.