The African Union on Sunday called for an unconditional ceasefire in northern Ethiopia and urged the warring parties to “recommit” to peace talks, as violence intensifies in the Tigray region.
The city of Shire in northwest Tigray has been bombarded for days in a joint offensive by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops, with civilian casualties reported in the push against rebels from the war-torn region.
UN chief Antonio Guterres has joined the United States and other Western powers in voicing alarm over the worsening violence and its toll on civilians, and calling for both sides to settle “this catastrophic conflict”.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government, and the Tigrayan authorities, have accepted an AU invitation to talk, but negotiations scheduled to start last weekend in South Africa failed to materialise and no new date has been announced.
AU Commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat expressed “grave concern” about the upsurge in violence and called for “an immediate, unconditional ceasefire and the resumption of humanitarian services” into areas cut off by the fighting.
“The Chairperson urges the Parties to recommit to dialogue as per their agreement to direct talks to be convened in South Africa by a high-level team led by the AU High Representative for the Horn of Africa, and supported by the international community,” he said in a statement issued Sunday, but dated Saturday.
A government spokesman did not respond to a request for comment when contacted by AFP.
Getachew Reda, a spokesman for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), welcomed the AU statement “in light of the extremely alarming humanitarian crisis unfolding as a result of the campaign by the Eritrean army and its Ethiopian allies”.
Talks were to be mediated by the bloc’s Horn of Africa envoy Olusegun Obasanjo, South Africa’s former deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta.
Diplomats suggested logistical issues were partly to blame for the much-anticipated meeting not going ahead.
– Aid worker killed –
International alarm over the latest fighting came as US special envoy Mike Hammer arrived in Addis Ababa to push for a peaceful resolution to nearly two years of war.
Fighting resumed in August after a five-month lull, dimming hopes of settling a conflict that has killed untold numbers of civilians, and been marked by atrocities by all sides.
“Intensively working with the African Union and other partners to launch an AU-led peace process in the coming days with the priority of achieving an immediate cessation of hostilities,” the US State Department’s Africa Bureau posted on Twitter on Sunday.
The return to war halted desperately-needed aid into Tigray, where the UN says millions have fled their homes, and hundreds of thousands are close to famine.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC), an aid organisation delivering relief to Tigray, announced on Saturday that one of its staff was among three civilians killed in an attack in Shire, a city of 100,000 inhabitants.
The World Food Programme (WFP) on Sunday said 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 strongly calls on all parties to the conflict to respect and protect humanitarian relief operations and personnel, in line with their obligations under international humanitarian law,” a WFP spokesperson in Ethiopia told AFP in a statement.
Shire had been “subjected to continuous heavy artillery and air strikes all this week” and civilians have been fleeing, a humanitarian worker in the city told AFP on condition of anonymity.
– ‘Indiscriminate attacks’ –
US aid chief Samantha Power on Sunday said “the risk of additional atrocities & loss of life is intensifying, particularly around Shire”.
“Recent indiscriminate attacks by the Ethiopian National Defense Forces and Eritrean Defense Forces in Shire, and reports that Eritrean forces may soon take control of civilian population centers, are gravely concerning,” Power wrote on Twitter.
Eritrea sided with Ethiopia when war began in November 2020 after Abiy accused the TPLF of attacks on army camps.
Eritrea is a historic enemy of the TPLF, which dominated Ethiopia’s ruling coalition until Abiy took power in 2018, and its forces have been accused of mass rape and murder in Tigray.
The re-entry of Eritrea into the conflict has “made matters significantly worse” and they must leave Ethiopia, said Hammer.
Eritrea says it is being “scapegoated” and has accused the US and others of turning a blind eye to TPLF atrocities.