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Ethiopia declares unilateral ceasefire as rebels retake Tigray capital

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia: Ethiopia’s government declared a unilateral ceasefire in its northern Tigray region after rebel fighters retook Mekelle, the regional capital, following nearly eight months of conflict that the United Nations says has pushed 350,000 people to the brink of famine.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the former governing party in the region, said on Monday it was back in control of Mekelle, and residents reported seeing troops in Tigray regional uniforms in the city for the first time since November.

“The capital of Tigray, Mekelle, is under our control,” Getachew Reda, spokesperson for the TPLF, told new agencies.

The statement on the “immediate, unilateral” ceasefire on Monday carried by state media came shortly after the Tigray interim administration, appointed by the federal government after routing TPLF forces, fled Mekelle and called for a truce to allow desperately needed aid to be delivered.

“This unilateral ceasefire declaration starts from today June 28, 2021 and will stay until the farming season ends,” a statement released by the federal government late on Monday read. Ethiopia’s main planting season lasts from May to September.

The Ethiopian prime minister’s spokesperson and the military’s spokesperson did not respond to phone calls and messages seeking comment. The TPLF could not immediately be reached for comment on the ceasefire.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he had spoken to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and was “hopeful that an effective cessation of hostilities will take place”.

“It is essential that civilians are protected, humanitarian aid reach the people in need and a political solution is found,” Guterres said in a statement.

The United States, Ireland and Britain have called for an emergency public UN Security Council meeting that could be held as early as Friday, diplomatic sources told news agencies.

Western countries have not yet succeeded in organising a public session on Tigray, with many African countries, China, Russia and other nations deeming the crisis an internal Ethiopian affair.

Abiy ordered a ground and air military operation in Tigray in early November 2020, accusing the TPLF of orchestrating attacks on federal army camps.

The TPLF, which dominated national politics for decades until Abiy came to power in 2018, said it was the target of a “coordinated attack” by federal forces and its long-time foe Eritrea.

Abraham Belay, head of the interim administration, said, “the government has the responsibility to find a political solution to the problem,” adding that some members within Tigray’s former ruling party were willing to talk with the federal government.

It remains unclear how many interim government officials have remained in their posts.

There have been no immediate comments from neighbouring Eritrea, whose soldiers have been accused of committing atrocities in the conflict.

The US, UK and Ireland called for a United Nations Security Council meeting over the issue, although a date is yet to be set for it. The last Security Council session on the matter was held on June 15 behind closed doors. Diplomats said China was opposed to the adoption of a joint declaration on the risk of extended famine in Ethiopia.