The African Union have called on the warring parties in the nearly two-year conflict in northern Ethiopia to “recommit” to peace talks, as violence intensifies in the Tigray region.
The city of Shire in northwest Tigray has been bombarded for several days in a joint offensive by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops, with civilian casualties reported in the push against rebels from the war-torn region.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC), an aid organisation delivering relief to embattled Tigray, announced on Saturday that one of its staff was among three civilians killed in an attack in Shire, a city of 100,000 inhabitants.
UN chief Antonio Guterres has joined the United States and other Western powers in expressing grave concern over the worsening violence and its impact on civilians, and called on both sides to peacefully settle “this catastrophic conflict”.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government, and the Tigrayan authorities, have accepted an AU invitation to talk, but negotiations scheduled to start last weekend in South Africa failed to take place.
“The Chairperson urges the Parties to recommit to dialogue as per their agreement to direct talks to be convened in South Africa by a high-level team led by the AU High Representative for the Horn of Africa, and supported by the international community,” AU Commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat said in a statement issued on Sunday, but dated Saturday.
Talks were to be mediated by the bloc’s Horn of Africa envoy Olusegun Obasanjo, South Africa’s former deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta.
Diplomats suggested logistical issues were partly to blame for the much-anticipated meeting not going ahead.
Aid worker killed
International alarm over the intense fighting near Shire came as US special envoy Mike Hammer arrived in Addis Ababa to push for peace between Ethiopia and its allies, and rebels led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
Fighting resumed in August after a five-month lull, dimming hopes of settling a conflict that has killed untold numbers of civilians, and been marked by atrocities by all sides.
The return to war halted desperately-needed aid into Tigray, where the UN says millions of people have been forced from their homes, and hundreds of thousands are close to famine.
The IRC said one staffer was killed and another injured in an attack on Friday that left two other civilians dead in Shire, which lies about 40 kilometres (25 miles) south of Ethiopia’s border with Eritrea.
The World Food Programme (WFP) on Sunday said it had received reports of the attack near where the IRC was distributing food “to WFP beneficiaries, including vulnerable mothers and children”.
“WFP condemns any deliberate targeting of humanitarian activities and strongly calls on all parties to the conflict to respect and protect humanitarian relief operations and personnel, in line with their obligations under international humanitarian law,” a WFP spokesperson in Ethiopia told AFP in a statement.
Shire had been “subjected to continuous heavy artillery and air strikes all this week” which has caused casualties and property damage, a humanitarian worker in the city told AFP.
Civilians have been fleeing the city, the source added on condition of anonymity.
US aid chief Samantha Power on Sunday said that “the risk of additional atrocities & loss of life is intensifying, particularly around Shire”.
“Recent indiscriminate attacks by the Ethiopian National Defense Forces and Eritrean Defense Forces in Shire, and reports that Eritrean forces may soon take control of civilian population centers, are gravely concerning,” Power wrote on Twitter.
Eritrea sided with Ethiopia in the early stages of the war, which began in November 2020 when Abiy sent troops into Tigray after accusing the TPLF of orchestrating attacks on army camps.
Eritrea is a historic enemy of the TPLF, which dominated Ethiopia’s ruling coalition until Abiy took power in 2018, and its forces have been accused of mass rape and murder in Tigray.
The re-entry of Eritrea into this latest phase of the conflict has “made matters significantly worse” and they must leave Ethiopia, said Hammer.
Eritrea says it is being “scapegoated” and has accused the US and others of turning a blind eye to TPLF atrocities.