But on June 29, seven months after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed proclaimed victory, his troops left Mekelle amid defeats on the battlefield following the launch of a major counteroffensive by Tigrayan forces.
Hours after the city was evacuated, Ethiopia announced that it had declared a unilateral ceasefire, apparently for humanitarian reasons.
“The main objective of the ceasefire is to facilitate aid deliveries and allow farmers to cultivate their crops in peace,” said Abraham Belay, head of the now overthrown interim administration of Tigray, in a statement. speech on state television shortly after the takeover.
The statement came as Ethiopia faced mounting international pressure following credible reports of extrajudicial killings, widespread rape and famine-like conditions in Tigray, where the United Nations estimates more than 90 percent of its six million people need emergency food. help.
This instilled hope that after eight months of brutal warfare, the region could see a halt in the fighting. But on the day the Ethiopian army pulled out of Mekelle, telephone lines across Tigray, as well as limited internet access used by humanitarian organizations for their operations, were cut.
Then reports revealed that a bridge over the Tekeze River, a key crossing point for aid deliveries to Tigray, had been destroyed. The two warring factions exchanged blame.
Events continue to hamper aid deliveries to affected populations, including some of the two million people internally displaced by the war.
“We are extremely concerned about the access limitations inside and outside Tigray with the closure of Shire and Mekelle airports and the blocking of certain roads connecting Tigray, in particular the road between Shire and Debark. where we have an operational base in the Amhara region, ”said Neven Crvenković, spokesperson for the UN refugee agency in Ethiopia.
“The destruction of the bridge over the River Tekeze made this road impassable – it severely affects our ability to move personnel, aid materials as well as basic supplies such as food, fuel and cash. “
Sabotage aside, the rhetoric of warring factions has hardly been accommodating since the capture of Mekelle by troops loyal to the regional party of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray (TPLF), which were recently renamed the Defense Forces. du Tigré (TDF).
TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda has since openly threatened to send Tigrayian forces to Eritrea, whose troops had entered Tigray to support Abiy’s army. “Our main objective is to degrade the combat capabilities of the enemy,” he told Reuters news agency.
After Mekelle’s withdrawal, Eritrean soldiers also evacuated a number of towns in Tigray, including Axum and Shiraro, which they had held for months.
Ethiopian army lieutenant-general Bacha Debele, however, warned at a press conference in Addis Ababa last week: “If provoked, [the army] could still work on Mekelle today. But if we come back, the damage will be much worse than before.
Positions without compromise
For months, Tigrayan officials had expressed their openness to negotiating an end to the war. After initially dismissing the federal government’s unilateral statement as a “joke,” the TPLF on Sunday presented a list of conditions for the ceasefire talks.
But several of the demands, including a demand for Addis Ababa to recognize TPLF’s dominance over the region, will almost certainly be rejected.
“Neither the Ethiopian government nor the TPLF have made any meaningful commitments to make this opening a reality,” Judd Devermont, US-based Africa program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Al Jazeera.
“There are still considerable obstacles to humanitarian access and lingering concerns about human rights violations committed by all parties. “
Despite the seemingly intransigent positions 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 avenue for potential third-party mediators to focus. on: prisoners.
On July 2, thousands of apparently captive Ethiopian soldiers marched through Mekelle on their way to a detention center in the city. TPLF chief Debretsion Gebremichael told the New York Times lower-ranking soldiers would be released, but officers and other commanders would remain in detention.
“The number of prisoners of war [prisoners of war] that we are currently hosting has exceeded 8,000, and they could increase further, ”Fesseha Tessema, TPLF adviser and former Ethiopian diplomat, told Al Jazeera. “They have received a visit from the International Red Cross and we are asking humanitarian organizations to help us provide food for all of them.
In an emailed statement to Al Jazeera, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross declined to comment on the matter.
According to Fesseha, the Ethiopian government has yet to contact the TPLF about its troops allegedly captured. Abiy’s press secretary Billene Seyoum did not immediately respond to an email request regarding prisoners of war. Ethiopian officials and state media have not made any statement on the matter.
For its part, the Ethiopian government is said to be detaining hundreds – and possibly more – of ethnic Tigrayans in the Ethiopian army, detained at the start of the war on suspicion of organizing a mutiny. A negotiated release of prisoners on both sides could open the door to preliminary talks on establishing a concrete ceasefire.
Another factor that could possibly soften hardened positions is war fatigue. US Senator Chris Coons said Prime Minister Abiy told him late last year that the war would end in six weeks.
But the fighting grew long and drawn-out, and eventually led to the United States slapping Ethiopia and Eritrea with economic sanctions and visa restrictions.
Abiy said last week that his government had spent more than 100 billion birr ($ 2.3 billion) on rehabilitation and food aid for the region, not including the cost of the military campaign – at a time when national instability and the coronavirus pandemic have taken a heavy toll on the country’s finances.
“It will take several years for the Ethiopian economy, perhaps more than a decade, to recover and regain its pre-war status,” predicted Ayele Gelan, research economist at the Kuwait Institute for Research. scientist.
“Even what is officially reported is a huge understatement of the real monetary costs of the war. We should count the money spent not only over the past eight months, but also over the decades to build the destroyed assets. The capital cost in Tigray is not just about military assets, but also includes destroyed roads, bridges, houses and farms. “
Analysts say the TDF would likely have to withdraw from the big cities and return to the mountains if conventional war were to break out again. The outbreak of new hostilities would prove especially catastrophic for hundreds of thousands of people who would be on the verge of famine and further decimate the region.
With Ethiopia’s ongoing rainy season, a lull in fighting would have been strategic for both warring factions – with or without a ceasefire. It is possible that the armies will take advantage of this period to recover, rearm and redeploy as soon as conditions become dry again.
The Ethiopia-Eritrea border war of 1998-2000, which left tens of thousands of people dead, also saw lulls in fighting during Ethiopia’s rainy season that begins in June and ends in late August. or early September. Both sides took advantage of these periods to train fighters or dig trenches before resuming fighting.
The Ethiopian government itself has said its unilateral ceasefire will expire in September, raising fears that the Allied coalition will use the rainy season as a recuperation period, ahead of further planned offensives. On paper, this could mean that the international community has only about two months to seal a final ceasefire.
“The imperative for all parties must now be to facilitate the access of relief convoys, to speed up the delivery of food aid to millions of Tigrayans and to ensure that farmers can plow and plant in as the rainy season sets in, ”the International Crisis Group said in a statement. Friday statement.
“They should also pursue political reconciliation in due course. ”