Fighting resumes in northern Ethiopia after five-month lull
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AFP) - Fighting erupted between government forces and Tigrayan rebels in northern Ethiopia on Wednesday, shattering a five-month truce and dealing a blow to peace talks.
Within hours, reports of fresh offensives were followed by Ethiopia's air force announcing it had downed a plane carrying weapons for the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that encroached on the country's airspace via neighbouring Sudan.
The government and the Tigray rebels have accused each other of undermining efforts to peacefully resolve the brutal 21-month war in Africa's second most populous nation, and traded blame over who was responsible for returning to combat.
UN chief Antonio Guterres said he was "deeply shocked" by the renewed fighting and appealed for an "immediate cessation of hostilities and for the resumption of peace talks". The TPLF said government forces and their allies had launched a "large scale" offensive towards southern Tigray early Wednesday after a months-long lull in fighting.
But the Government Communication Service accused the TPLF of striking first, saying its action had "destroyed the truce".
"Disregarding the numerous peace options presented by the Ethiopian government, the armed wing of the terror group TPLF, pushing with its recent provocations starting 5 am (0200 GMT) today committed an attack" around southern Tigray, it said in a statement.
The rival claims could not be independently verified as access to northern Ethiopia is restricted, but there were reports of fighting around southern Tigray in areas bordering the Amhara and Afar regions.
"They launched the offensive early this morning around 5 am local time. We are defending our positions," TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda told AFP in Nairobi in a brief message.
He said on Twitter that the "large-scale" offensive was launched "against our positions in the southern front" by the Ethiopian army and special forces and militias from neighbouring Amhara.
'Violated our airspace'
The air force said Wednesday it had shot down a plane "believed to be a property of historical enemies who want Ethiopia's weakness".
"The airplane which violated our airspace from Sudan... and aimed to supply weapons to the terror group was shot down by our heroic air force," the Ethiopian News Agency quoted armed forces Major General Tesfaye Ayalew as saying.
The date of the incident, the type of aircraft and how it was downed were not detailed.
A truce forged in March paused fighting in a war that first began in November 2020, allowing a resumption of some international aid to war-stricken Tigray after a three-month break.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government and the TPLF have been locked in a war of words in recent weeks over possible peace talks.
The two sides disagree on who should lead negotiations, and the TPLF also insists basic services must be restored to Tigray's six million people before dialogue can begin.
Abiy's government says any negotiations must be brokered by the African Union's Horn of Africa envoy Olusegun Obasanjo, who is leading the international push for peace, but the rebels want outgoing Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta to mediate.
William Davison, senior Ethiopia analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank, urged all parties to cease fighting to avert "a return to full-blown war".
"This serious breach of the truce agreed earlier this year demonstrates the need for the two parties to arrange unconditional face-to-face negotiations as soon as these hostilities cease," Davison said in a statement.
"It is also a deafening warning to the key international and regional actors that they must immediately ensure peace talks actually occur."
'Enough of this war'
The conflict has killed untold numbers of people, with widespread reports of atrocities including mass killings and sexual violence. Millions of people need humanitarian assistance in Tigray, the country's northernmost region, as well as Afar and Amhara.
The UN's World Food Programme said last week that nearly half the population in Tigray is suffering from a severe lack of food and that rates of malnutrition had "skyrocketed". The dire assessment came despite the resumption of desperately needed international aid convoys to Tigray's capital Mekele in April, with fuel shortages making it difficult to distribute supplies.
Tigray is largely cut off from the rest of Ethiopia, without basic services such as electricity, communications and banking. Abiy sent troops into Tigray in November 2020 to topple the TPLF after months of seething tensions with the party that had dominated Ethiopian politics for three decades.
The 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner said the move came in response to rebel attacks on army camps. The TPLF mounted a comeback, recapturing Tigray and expanding into Afar and Amhara, before the war reached a stalemate. Last Wednesday, an Ethiopian government committee tasked with looking into negotiations had called for a formal ceasefire as part of a proposal it planned to submit to the AU.
"If you can't win, then you've got to sit down and talk," Abiy said Sunday in remarks carried on state media. "My advice is... let's have enough of (this) war."