TPLF rebels announce retreat towards Ethiopia's Tigray

AFP , Monday 20 Dec 2021

Tigrayan rebels announced on Monday they were withdrawing from several areas of northern Ethiopia and retreating to Tigray, marking a new turning point in the 13-month war which has left thousands of people dead.

Tigray, Ethiopia
Lem Lem Hailemariam (bottom), 40, who had her knee fractured in her town Togoga in a deadly airstrike on a market, breast feeds her 3-month-old child as she receives medical treatments at the entrance hall of the Ayder referral hospital in Mekele, on June 24, 2021. AFP

"We decided to withdraw from these areas to Tigray. We want to open the door to humanitarian aid," Getachew Reda, spokesman for the Tigray People's Liberation Front, told AFP, announcing a pullout from the regions of Amhara and Afar.

The decision was made a few weeks ago, Getachew said, adding that TPLF fighters were carrying out "phase-by-phase withdrawals" from various towns, including the UNESCO World Heritage site of Lalibela, which has changed hands several times during the conflict.

The move marks a major reversal by the rebels, who previously dismissed the government's insistence on their withdrawal from Afar and Amhara for talks to begin as "an absolute non-starter".

The conflict between forces loyal to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the TPLF has triggered a severe humanitarian crisis and prompted the UN's top rights body to order an international probe into alleged abuses.

Starting in late October, the two sides have each declared major territorial advances, with the TPLF at one point claiming to be around 200 kilometres (125 miles) of the capital Addis Ababa by road.

Abiy, a former lieutenant colonel in the military, headed to the front last month, according to state media, and the government has since claimed to have retaken several key towns.

Communications have been cut in the conflict zone and access for journalists is restricted, making it difficult to verify battlefield claims.

The fighting has sparked alarm among the international community, as diplomatic efforts led by the African Union to try to reach a ceasefire failed to yield any visible breakthrough.

Humanitarian 'siege'

Prior to Monday's announcement, TPLF leaders had refused to pull out of Amhara and Afar, unless the government ended what the rebels describe as a humanitarian "siege" of Tigray.

Aid workers have repeatedly complained that security and bureaucratic hurdles are impeding access to the region, where some 400,000 people are thought to be on the verge of famine.

The UN also suspended humanitarian flights from Addis Ababa to Tigray's capital Mekele in October amid a campaign of government air strikes in the region. The flights resumed in November.

Fears of a rebel march on the capital prompted countries such as the United States, France and Britain to urge their citizens to leave Ethiopia as soon as possible, although Abiy's government insisted the city was secure.

The war broke out in November 2020 when Abiy sent troops into Tigray, Ethiopia's northernmost region, to topple the TPLF, accusing them of attacking army camps.

He vowed a swift victory but the rebels mounted a shock comeback, recapturing most of Tigray by June before advancing into neighbouring Afar and Amhara.

The fighting has displaced more than two million people and driven hundreds of thousands into famine-like conditions, according to UN estimates, with reports of massacres and mass rapes by both sides.

On Friday, the UN Human Rights Council voted to send international investigators to Africa's second most populous nation amid warnings of looming generalised violence, in a move slammed by Addis Ababa.

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