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Government's war plan falls apart

Addis Ababa under pressure to open negotiations as Tigrayan forces consolidate after retaking Mekelle

Regional officials and diplomats are urging Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government to launch talks with its opponents in Tigray three days after it pulled federal troops out of the regional capital, Mekelle.

But officials in Addis Ababa are yet to make detailed public comments about their next steps – other than spokesman Redwan Hussein claiming that the government could send troops back into Mekelle 'in less than three weeks … if necessary'.

Abiy's government also faces calls to allow relief organisations full access to Tigray as over a third of million people face famine there and another five million are in desperate need of nutrition.

Just after dawn on 28 June Tigrayan forces marched into Mekelle, the regional capital, to cheers from its citizens, changing the course of the eight-month war with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government and shaking up national politics. Later in the day, the government announced a unilateral ceasefire, insisting it was for humanitarian reasons.

For Abiy the danger is that this military reversal further weakens his government's authority and encourages its opponents in Oromia and Somali region. It also comes as Abiy's supporters had hoped to announce a sweeping victory for his Prosperity Party after the elections on 21 June.

One of the main aims of the Prosperity Party is to move Ethiopia towards a more unitary system of government, away from the ethno-nationalist federalism operating there for the last three decades. But such a move, although supported in Amhara region, is strongly opposed in other regions, many of which would like to see a loosening of ties with Addis Ababa.

Some regional officials are advising the government to launch a national dialogue about the direction of the country as a means to contain the security crisis.

The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia presided over voting in about 80% of the parliamentary constituencies. In the other 20%, which included all of Tigray, conditions were judged too insecure to organise voting (AC Vol 62 No 13, War casts shadow over Abiy's election plan).

As the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) marched into Mekelle on 28 June, officials of the interim regional government installed by Addis Ababa were fleeing along with soldiers from the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF).

Some were accused of looting government property, including the Mekelle branch of the central bank, before they left. The UN Children's Fund complained that ENDF soldiers had stolen its satellite equipment and other telecoms hardware.

Conditions in Tigray outside of Mekelle remain dire, say UN officials, with little electricity and telecoms as well as chronic shortages of food and medicine. Late on 28 June, UN Secretary General António Guterres called Prime Minister Abiy to urge an effective ceasefire and access for desperately needed relief supplies.

Addis Ababa's ceasefire could improve conditions on the ground as it will mean the opening of several land routes for relief supplies. But there are still many risks. 

Getachew Reda, spokesman for the TDF, says it will not reciprocate with its own ceasefire declaration until Eritrean troops withdraw north of the border and fighters from the Amhara ethnic militias have left the western part of Tigray region, bordering Sudan.

'Our forces are in hot pursuit to south, east, to continue until every square inch of territory is cleared from the enemy,' Reda told Reuters news agency.

Social media posts suggest that Eritrean troops left Shire in the north of Tigray region on 29 June and were heading for the border. That follows a statement in Addis Ababa that Eritrean troops had withdrawn completely from Tigray. But there has been no formal response from President Issayas Afewerki's government in the face of its defeat at the hands of its historic foes in Tigray.

As pressure grows on the Tigray forces and the Addis Ababa government to build on the unilateral ceasefire announced on 28 June, soldiers on all sides could use the pause to regroup.

Now in the ascendancy, Tigray forces could pursue Eritrean forces across the border and launch revenge attacks there. Likewise, they say they will expel Amhara militia fighters from the west of Tigray, where there have been several clashes over land rights.

To forestall such escalation, the Abiy government would have to rein in its allies and persuade them to join the federal forces in the withdrawal.

For now, it's unclear whether Addis Ababa wants or is able to order its allies out of Tigray. Some are suggesting that a regionally-monitored ceasefire arrangement will be necessary to stop the fighting spreading and to open negotiations between the main protagonists.

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