Ethiopian government, Tigray leaders agree to end two-year civil war

After two years of fighting that killed thousands of people and left many more displaced or starving, Ethiopia's government and Tigray authorities have reached a peace deal.

Deal to end devastating conflict secured in African Union-led peace talks in South Africa

Redwan Hussein, the lead negotiator for Ethiopia's government, left, shakes hands with lead Tigray negotiator Getachew Reda, right, as Kenya's former president, Uhuru Kenyatta looks on. The two sides agreed to a permanent ceasefire after peace talks in Pretoria, South Africa, on Wednesday. (Themba Hadebe/The Associated Press)

Ethiopia's warring sides formally agreed Wednesday to a permanent cessation of hostilities in a two-year conflict with victims counted in the hundreds of thousands.

African Union envoy Olusegun Obasanjo, in the first briefing on the peace talks in South Africa, said Ethiopia's government and Tigray authorities have agreed on "orderly, smooth and co-ordinated disarmament."

Other key points included "restoration of law and order," he said, as well as "restoration of services" and "unhindered access to humanitarian supplies." Obasanjo is a former Nigerian president.

"It is now for all of us to honour this agreement," said the lead negotiator for Ethiopia's government, Redwan Hussein. Lead Tigray negotiator Getachew Reda expressed similar sentiment, and noted that "painful concessions" have been made.

The war, which marks two years on Friday, saw abuses documented on either side. "The level of destruction is immense," Redwan said.

A militia member walks next to a house destroyed in the fight between the Ethiopian National Defence Forces and the Tigray People's Liberation Front forces in Kasagita, Ethiopia, on Feb. 25. The two sides were at war for nearly two years. (Tiksa Negeri/Reuters)

Eritrea not part of deal

Eritrea, which has fought alongside neighbouring Ethiopia, was notably not part of the peace talks. It's not immediately clear to what extent its deeply repressive government, which has long considered Tigray authorities a threat, will respect the agreement. Eritrea's information minister didn't reply to questions.

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Eritrean forces have been blamed for some of the conflict's worst abuses, including gang-rapes, and witnesses have described killings and looting by Eritrean forces even during the peace talks.

On Wednesday, a humanitarian source said several women in the town of Adwa reported being raped by Eritrean soldiers, and some were badly wounded. The source, like many on the situation inside Tigray, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Forces from Ethiopia's neighbouring Amhara region also have been fighting Tigray ones, but Amhara representatives are not part of the peace talks.

"Amharas cannot be expected to abide by any outcome of a negotiations process from which they think they are excluded," said Tewodrose Tirfe, chairman of the Amhara Association of America.

Desperate for aid

A critical question is how soon aid can return to Tigray, whose communications and transport links have been largely severed since the conflict began. Doctors have described running out of basic medicines like vaccines, insulin and therapeutic food while people die of easily preventable diseases and starvation.

United Nations human rights investigators have said the Ethiopian government was using "starvation of civilians" as a weapon of war.

Millions of people were displaced or left starving by the conflict between Ethiopia's government and the Tigray People's Liberation Front. Here, a displaced woman carries items distributed by an international aid organization in Chagni on Jan. 28. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty Images)

"We're back to 18th century surgery," a surgeon at the region's flagship hospital, Fasika Amdeslasie, told health experts at an online event Wednesday. "It's like an open-air prison."

A humanitarian source said their organization could resume operations almost immediately if unfettered aid access to Tigray is granted.

"It entirely depends on what the government agrees to ... If they genuinely give us access, we can start moving very quickly, in hours, not weeks," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Two years of war

The conflict began in November 2020, less than a year after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for making peace with Eritrea, which borders the Tigray region. Abiy's government has since declared the Tigray authorities, who ruled Ethiopia for nearly three decades before Abiy took office, a terrorist organization.

The brutal fighting, which also spilled into the neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions as Tigray forces tried to press toward the capital, was renewed in August in Tigray after months of lull that allowed thousands of trucks of aid into the region.

Soldiers from the Ethiopian National Defence Force ride on a truck in Wichale on Dec. 13, 2021. The two-year war killed thousands of Ethiopians and caused major disruptions to aid reaching parts of the country. (Amanuel Sileshi/AFP via Getty Images)

According to minutes of a Tigray Emergency Coordination Centre meeting on Oct. 21, seen by the Associated Press, health workers reported 101 civilians killed by drone strikes and airstrikes, and 265 injured, between Sept. 27 and Oct. 10 alone.

In a speech Wednesday before the peace talks' announcement, Ethiopia's prime minister said that "we need to replicate the victory we got on the battlefield in peace efforts, too. We are finalizing the war in northern Ethiopia with a victory ... we will now bring peace and development."