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Talks to bring about peace in Ethiopia still ongoing with no tangible progress

Mediators representing Ethiopia’s federal government and the authorities of the country’s embattled Tigray region were still meeting on Tuesday morning, according to three officials. One of them said the talks could continue until Wednesday.

The peace talks – whose mediators are African Union envoy Olusegun Obasanjo, former South African Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta – began early last week and were due to conclude on Sunday.

Washington is supporting the process through its Horn of Africa envoy, Mike Hammer, who flew with Tigray’s mediators to South Africa in a US military plane.

The mediation is the first formal meeting between the warring parties, following at least three rounds of informal talks. Eritrea, which is fighting in Tigray alongside Ethiopia’s federal government, is not taking part in the peace process.

Western diplomats and the African Union Commission have welcomed the talks in South Africa as a chance to resolve an almost two-year conflict that has uprooted millions and brought the threat of famine to Tigray.

“[A]s many as half a million” people have been killed in the conflict, according to Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations, who warned the UN Security Council last month of the potential for “mass atrocities” if the fighting continues.

Ambiguity

Officials close to the talks in South Africa have remained tip-lipped about the process, with little information reaching the outside world.

As conditions for peace, the Tigray rebels have previously demanded the restoration of phone and banking services to the region, unfettered aid access, and the withdrawal of Eritrean forces. Federal officials have recently been calling for the disarmament of the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

“The talks are ongoing, not much is filtering out,” a Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, tells The Africa Report.

On Monday, US State Department spokesman Ned Price confirmed the talks had been extended.

“It’s an indication that the parties arrived in South Africa with quite a bit of distance between them, but it’s also an indication that the parties continue to be willing to sit down together in what we hope to be a constructive atmosphere and ultimately an atmosphere when the parties can discuss their differences and continue to narrow the distance between them,” Price told reporters in Washington.

News of the peace talks are a positive step, but it is critical to recall that mass atrocities often continue to be perpetrated while negotiations are ongoing

In an interview posted online by Chinese-state broadcaster CGTN on Monday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed suggested that foreign interference was hindering the peace process, but said “peace will be achieved”.

“Of course, if there are lots of interventions from left and right, sometimes it is very difficult,” he said. “[…] Ethiopians should understand, we can solve our issue[s] by ourselves, and instead of listening from afar, better to respect our own laws, better to respect our own culture.”

Escalation

Ahead of the talks, Eritrean and Ethiopian forces made a series of military gains in Tigray, capturing the towns of Shire, Adwa and Axum, even though Tigray forces claim their withdrawal from these areas is strategic.

Fresh evidence of human rights abuses has also emerged, with Amnesty International alleging that between 6-12 September, Eritrean forces killed 40 civilians in Sheraro, a town in Northwest Tigray.

“Tigrayan civilians are afraid that the widespread abuses, such as unlawful killings, sexual violence and systematic attacks, that were rampant when the Ethiopian National Defence Forces [ENDF] and its allied forces were in control of these areas from November 2020 to June 2021, might happen again,” Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty International’s director for East and Southern Africa, said in a statement last week.

Meanwhile, the pressure group Amhara Association of America has accused the Tigray forces of killing at least 193 civilians in parts of the Amhara region, which they occupied shortly after the conflict renewed in late August.

Last week, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington said it was “deeply concerned about further crimes against humanity and a heightened risk of genocide in Ethiopia’s Tigray region”.

“News of the peace talks are a positive step, but it is critical to recall that mass atrocities often continue to be perpetrated while negotiations are ongoing,” said Naomi Kikoler, the director of the museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide.

Ethiopia’s federal government has rejected allegations of human rights abuses as baseless, issuing a statement Sunday that said Tigrayans have demonstrated “extraordinary” hospitality to the federal military in areas under its control.

In a separate statement on Friday, the federal government’s communication service said allegations of atrocities made by “various Western entities” were “propaganda” that forms part of an “orchestrated campaign against Ethiopia”.

“They are mistaken that by making such outrageous allegations they could intimate the government of Ethiopia to change course in its defensive measures against the TPLF,” the statement said.

Neither statement referred to the status of the talks in South Africa.

On Friday, the Ethiopian Red Cross said one of its ambulance drivers was killed by “armed forces” while he was driving his ambulance between Adwa and the Wolkait region of Western Tigray.

The news followed the death of an International Rescue Committee staff member last month in Shire, who was killed in an attack while distributing humanitarian aid.

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