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Federal and Tigrayan leaders open talks in South Africa

The fighting rages on and humanitarian conditions worsen in Tigray as the rival sides start to negotiate – a ceasefire is top of the agenda

Fast moving events on the battlefield where several Tigrayan towns have fallen to Federal forces in recent weeks threaten progress at the peace talks between the federal Ethiopian government and Tigrayan rebels which opened in South Africa on 24 October (AC Vol 63 No 19, Advancing towards stalemate).

South Africa's foreign minister Naledi Pandor, who spoke to United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken on 23 October about the organisation of the talks, is working closely with Washington's special envoy to the Horn Mike Hammer on the format for the negotiations.

Securing a ceasefire will be top priority along with ending the blockade on emergency humanitarian aid to Tigray province.  Last week, UN Secretary General António Guterres warned the conflict was 'spiraling out of control'. Large-scale fighting restarted in August, breaking a ceasefire which had mainly held since the beginning of the year.

Ethiopian and Eritrean forces have advanced on several fronts in recent days, claiming to have captured the towns of Adwa and Shire, and announcing they would take over Tigray's airports. Despite these advances, the capacity and resources displayed by the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) forces suggests that the federal forces would face a continued and determined insurgency if they tried to extend the advance across Tigray.

The Tigray delegation is being led by one of its top generals, Tsadkan Gebretensae, and spokesman Getachew Reda, and were accompanied by Mike Hammer. For the federal government, Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen and national security advisor Redwan Hussein will lead a seven-member team.

The African Union, whose Horn of Africa envoy ex-Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, supported by South Africa's former deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, is supposed to mediate the talks, but has not released details about plans for the talks.

Summing up the aims of the TPLF, its spokesman Kindeya Gebrehiwot tweeted on 23 October 'Pressing: immediate cessation of hostilities, unfettered humanitarian access & withdrawal of Eritrean forces.'

'Ethiopia will be peaceful, we will not continue fighting indefinitely,' Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed stated last week, but the fighting has continued, even after both sides dispatched their delegations to South Africa.

Getting both sides to the table for talks was a step forward that had not been managed during the truce. Longstanding disagreements between the two sides on the mandate of negotiations and the mediators involved will need to be quickly resolved (AC Vol 63 No 14, Rivals differ over talks location & Vol 63 No 6, Rivals set out their minimum conditions). The Tigrayan side remains sceptical about the neutrality of Obasanjo who they have accused of being biased towards Addis Ababa.

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