Ethiopia says Tigray ceasefire a work in progress amid fears of famine

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ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Ethiopia’s ceasefire with rebel Tigrayan forces is a work in progress and needs both sides’ commitment to work, the Foreign Ministry said on Thursday, as aid agencies battled destroyed communications to reach hundreds of thousands facing famine.

The former rulers of Ethiopia’s Tigray region, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), said on Monday they were back in control of the regional capital Mekelle after nearly eight months of fighting, and the government declared a unilateral ceasefire.

People in Mekelle said incoming Tigrayan fighters had been greeted with cheers. There were similar scenes in Shire in northern Tigray on Wednesday, after Eritrean troops had left, residents said.

“For this to be fully implemented, as they say, it needs two to tango, so the other side needs to react,” ministry spokesman Dina Mufti told reporters on Thursday in reference to the ceasefire.

“So, for example, how and which way is aid going to enter, and what is going to happen with flights. We will see as we proceed. As of now we don’t have a ready-made answer. It is a work in progress.”

With electricity and phone and internet lines cut to the region, aid agencies are severely limited in their ability to access people in dire need of food and other services.

The United Nations said in early June at least 350,000 in Tigray were facing famine. The U.S. Agency for International Development last week estimated the number at 900,000.

“It is urgent to get additional staff and supplies into Tigray, restore electricity and telecoms, and ensure that cash and fuel are available throughout the region for the continuity of humanitarian operations,” a spokesperson for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Hayat Abu Salah, said.

SATELLITE EQUIPMENT ‘DESTROYED’

In Mekelle, the streets were calm on Thursday morning and shops and markets were open for business, Abu Salah said.

Electricity and telecommunications remained down and U.N. offices were relying on limited remaining satellites after Ethiopian soldiers destroyed equipment at the UNICEF office in the city earlier this week, she added.

On Wednesday, the U.N. was able to conduct assessment missions to several towns now back under TPLF control, she said, mentioning that the road between Axum and Adwa, in the centre of the northern Tigray, was clear.

“We are preparing for resumption of aid,” Abu Salah said, noting that 5.2 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance in Tigray.

“We are here, we are staying, we will deliver.”

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed acknowledged government troops had left Tigray’s regional capital Mekelle after months of fighting, saying it was because the city was no longer the “centre of gravity for conflicts”.

He downplayed the withdrawal, saying Ethiopian forces had left Mekelle to focus on more important security threats such as tensions with neighbouring Sudan and with Egypt over the huge dam Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile.

But a spokesman for the TPLF called Abiy’s comments a “lie”, saying that government troops lost and were forced to leave Mekelle.

Abiy has come under mounting international pressure to bring an end to the conflict, which has been punctuated by reports of brutal gang-rapes and mass killings of civilians. At least 12 aid workers have been killed.

Abiy acknowledged in a speech to parliament in March that atrocities including rape have occurred and pledged that any member of the Ethiopian army who committed crimes against civilians would be held accountable.

The government’s continued shutdown of electricity and other services through the region “makes deaths from famine inevitable”, said one Western diplomat working in the Horn of Africa.

Abiy said in his remarks on Tuesday that, beyond the cost of the military campaign in Tigray, his government spent more than 100 billion birr (about $2.3 billion) for rehabilitation and food aid for the region.

Abiy said that was equivalent to 20% of this year’s national budget.

Abiy’s government has been battling the TPLF since late last year, when it accused the then-governing party of Tigray of attacking military bases across the region.

(Reporting by Dawit Endeshaw in Addis Ababa and Maggie Fick in Nairobi; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Andrew Heavens)