JOHANNESBURG – Peace talks to end Ethiopia's devastating Tigray conflict have begun in South Africa, a South African government spokesman said Tuesday. It is the highest-level effort yet to end two years of fighting that has killed perhaps hundreds of thousands of people.
The spokesman for South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Vincent Magwenya, said the African Union-led talks that started Tuesday are expected to continue until Sunday. Delegations from the Ethiopian government and Tigray authorities arrived in South Africa this week. There was no immediate comment from either side.
“Such talks are in line with South Africa’s foreign policy objectives of a secure and conflict-free continent,” Magwenya said.
Former Nigerian president and AU envoy Olesegun Obasanjo, former South African deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta are facilitating the talks with the encouragement of the United States, whose special envoy Mike Hammer picked up the Tigray delegation in a U.S. military aircraft on Sunday.
The conflict has sharply changed the fortunes of Ethiopia's Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who went to war with his country's northern Tigray region less than a year after receiving the award for making peace with neighboring Eritrea. Eritrea's government has long seen the Tigray leaders, who led Ethiopia for nearly three decades before Abiy came to power, as enemies.
The peace talks — led by Ethiopia's national security adviser Redwan Hussein and by Tigray forces spokesman Getachew Reda and Gen. Tsadkan Gebretensae — begin as Ethiopian and allied forces from Eritrea have taken over some urban areas in Tigray in the past few days.
Those include the towns of Axum, Adwa and now Adigrat, according to a humanitarian source who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly.
The Tigray region of more than 5 million people is again cut off from the world by renewed fighting that began in late August following months of a lull in the conflict that allowed combatants — including two of the African continent's largest militaries — to regroup.
All combatants have committed abuses, according to United Nations human rights investigators who recently singled out the Ethiopian government as using “starvation of civilians” as a weapon of war. Babies in Tigray are dying in their first month of life at four times the rate before the war cut off access to most medical care, according to a yet-unpublished study shared by its authors with The Associated Press this month.
Relief convoy movements have “remained on complete standstill” since Aug. 24, the U.N. said this week. “Please, government, please (Tigray authorities), for the sake of your own people, come to a positive conclusion or at least open up a channel of peace,” U.N. refugee chief Filippo Grandi said Tuesday while visiting neighboring Kenya.
The war since exploding in November 2020 has also spilled over into Ethiopia's neighboring Amhara and Afar regions, putting hundreds of thousands of people there in peril. Meanwhile, the economy of Ethiopia, once one of the fastest-growing in Africa, has suffered.
Academics and health workers have estimated that hundreds of thousands of people have been killed by conflict and deprivation, and the U.S. has begun warning of a half-million casualties.
“Too many lives have already been lost in this conflict,” the chair and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee wrote with several colleagues in an open letter to Ethiopia's prime minister this week urging “a cessation of hostilities and unfettered humanitarian access ahead of, and for the duration of, the negotiations.”
Associated Press writer Cara Anna in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed.