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Ethiopia’s Return to Conflict: What We Know

#Ethiopias #Return #Conflict

Fresh fighting between Ethiopian forces and Tigrayan rebels has broken a five-month truce that had paved the way for the resumption of humanitarian aid and tentative peace efforts.

The facts behind the sudden resurgence of conflict in northern Ethiopia are sparse. Here’s what we know so far and what questions remain:

– How did it happen? –

As during the 21-month conflict, both sides have accused each other of starting the fight and violating the ceasefire that has been in place since late March.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) said government forces and their allies launched a “large-scale” offensive against south Tigray at 5 a.m. (0200 GMT) on Wednesday.

But Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government said it was the rebels who struck first.

The tit-for-tat claims could not be independently verified as access to northern Ethiopia is severely restricted.

Later in the day, the Ethiopian Air Force announced that it had shot down a plane carrying weapons for the TPLF that had entered its airspace via Sudan, a claim the rebels dismissed as a “blatant lie”.

– What does this mean for peace efforts? –

Regardless of who initiated Wednesday’s clashes, the prospects for peace in Africa’s second-most populous nation appear bleak, analysts say.

Even before the most recent outbreak of violence, both sides were arguing about who should mediate in possible negotiations.

4ede3de0812f11140f6d1fc5a6885895f06464a3The Abiy government wants African Union envoy for the Horn of Africa Olusegun Obasanjo to lead the peace talks, while the TPLF is pushing for Kenya’s outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta to broker a dialogue.

They have also squabbled over restoring basic services like electricity, communications and banking to Tigray – a key requirement for the dialogue, according to the TPLF.

The government, on the other hand, says federal service providers cannot operate within Tigray without a “secure environment.”

The political risk consultancy Eurasia Group described “the precautionary recruitment and training of troops by both camps” – an indication that neither side had placed much emphasis on peace negotiations.

“Amid a resurgence in fighting, neither party will be willing to lessen their grip on future talks by compromising on key issues,” said Connor Vasey, Eurasia’s Africa analyst.

“Rather, they will probably aim to use the next phase of the struggle to strengthen their negotiating positions,” he said, setting the stage for an escalation of violence.

– How will humanitarian aid be affected? –

Before the ceasefire, Tigray had not reached Tigray for three months by land, leaving the region of six million people in desperate need of food.

Even after the convoys resumed, fuel shortages made it difficult for the helpers to distribute relief supplies.

Last week, the United Nations World Food Program warned that nearly half of Tigray’s population is suffering from severe food shortages and rates of malnutrition have “skyrocketed”.

Returning to conflict will exacerbate an already dire situation.

On Wednesday, the United Nations said rebels “forced their way into a WFP warehouse in Tigray’s capital Mekele” this morning and took away a dozen tankers with 570,000 liters of fuel for emergency relief operations.

“Millions will starve if we don’t have fuel to deliver food. This is UNUSUAL and SHOCKY,” WFP chief David Beasley said on Twitter.

– Is this a full return to war? –

In recent weeks, both warring factions appear to have simultaneously raised the possibility of peace while making preparations for a possible return to conflict.

Whether the latest conflagration leads to all-out war will depend on which view prevails, with analysts urging the international community to play a more active role in bringing both actors to the negotiating table.

In an Aug. 23 statement, TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael said the rebels had engaged in “two rounds of confidential face-to-face” meetings with senior Ethiopian officials, the first confirmation from either side of direct talks.

The government has not confirmed the existence of such talks, but last week an official committee tasked with reviewing the negotiations called for a formal ceasefire in a proposal it intended to submit to the AU.

The outbreak of hostilities is “a deafening warning to key international and regional actors that they must immediately ensure peace talks do indeed take place,” said William Davison, senior Ethiopia analyst at think tank International Crisis Group.

“They should accordingly instruct the conflicting parties to make all their demands at the negotiating table, rather than making them a precondition for talks.”

Diplomatic efforts have encountered difficulties in the past.

The TPLF has accused Obasanjo of being biased in favor of the government, and Addis Ababa, for its part, has chastised US and EU envoys for pushing for Tigray to resume basic services, reflecting the magnitude of the challenge ahead.

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