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Tigray rebels set up team to negotiate with govt

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Tigrayan rebels have set up a team to negotiate with the Ethiopian government, a spokesman for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front told AFP on Monday, 20 months after war broke out in the northern region.

The announcement comes less than a week after an Ethiopian government body tasked with examining the possibility of peace talks with the TPLF held its first meeting.

But in a sign of the challenges dogging the process, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party has insisted any negotiations could only be led by the African Union (AU), a stance rejected by the rebels.

The TPLF has voiced concerns about the “proximity” of the AU’s envoy, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, to Abiy and said it wants any talks to be held under the auspices of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.

“We will be ready to send a delegation to Nairobi… and have established a team with high-ranking members,” TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda told AFP, without offering further details.

“It would be very irresponsible for us to submit all negotiating processes to the AU,” he said, adding that any talks would have to involve Kenyatta, who has played an active role in peace efforts.

The government’s committee is headed by Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonen, who also serves as foreign minister.

The conflict has driven hundreds of thousands of people to the brink of famine, displaced more than two million and left more than nine million in need of food aid, according to the United Nations.

Fighting has eased since a humanitarian truce was declared at the end of March.

But Tigray continues to face dire shortages of food and fuel while lacking access to essential services such as electricity and banking, according to aid agencies.

Getachew reiterated the rebels’ stance that the status of western Tigray — claimed by both Amharas and Tigrayans and currently occupied by Amhara forces — was not up for negotiation.

The conflict erupted in November 2020 when the government sent federal troops into Tigray to topple the TPLF, the region’s former ruling party, saying it was in response to rebel attacks on army camps.

After the TPLF mounted a shock comeback in June, retaking Tigray and then expanding into the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara, fighting intensified in the second half of 2021, before reaching a stalemate.