Ethiopia govt says accepts AU invite to peace talks

Addis Ababa (AFP) – Ethiopia's government said Wednesday it has accepted an African Union invitation to hold peace talks with Tigrayan rebels after almost two years of brutal war in the north of the country.

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Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's national security adviser Redwan Hussein said on Twitter that the government had "accepted this invitation which is in line with our principled position regarding the peaceful resolution of the conflict and the need to have talks without preconditions".

The Government Communication Service said in a statement that the AU had set "both the date and the venue" for the talks but did not elaborate.

AU spokeswoman Ebba Kalondo declined to provide information about when and where the talks would take place, telling AFP: "We will communicate details as and when appropriate", adding that the process remained "on track".

There was no immediate response from the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) to the announcement, which comes more than a month after intense fighting resumed in northern Ethiopia, shattering a March truce and dimming hopes of ending the war.

The deepening conflict has raised international alarm, with the United States this week announcing that its special envoy to the region, Mike Hammer, would be making his second visit to Ethiopia in as many months to seek a halt to the fighting.

The latest upsurge has also drawn Eritrean troops back on to the battlefield in support of Ethiopia's federal and regional forces, which are fighting the TPLF on multiple fronts in the country's north.

Tigrayan authorities said last month they were ready to participate in talks mediated by the African Union, removing an obstacle to negotiations with the government in Addis Ababa.

But fighting has only escalated in the weeks since.

- 'Troika of negotiators' -

A diplomatic source told AFP that the AU talks would be mediated by "a troika of negotiators" including the bloc's Horn of Africa envoy Olusegun Obasanjo and former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta.

Another diplomatic source said South Africa's former deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka would serve as the third negotiator.

The warring sides were previously at odds over who should mediate negotiations, with Abiy's government pushing for Obasanjo and the TPLF wanting Kenyatta to broker dialogue.

They have also sparred over the restoration of basic services such as electricity, communications and banking in Tigray -- a key precondition for dialogue according to the TPLF.

The region of six million people has been facing desperate shortages of food, fuel, medicines and other emergency supplies, with the UN's World Food Programme warning of rising malnutrition.

The US State Department on Monday announced that special envoy Hammer would travel to Kenya, South Africa and Ethiopia this month.

The visit, which will include meetings with federal government and African Union officials, comes on the heels of an 11-day trip by Hammer to Ethiopia last month, with the State Department saying it was aimed at supporting the launch of AU-led peace talks.

The war, which erupted in November 2020, has killed untold numbers of civilians and triggered a deep humanitarian crisis, and all sides to the conflict have been accused of grave abuses against civilians.