The Ethiopian government and Tigrayan rebels have had “direct engagements,” the African Union said in a statement made public on Thursday, in the first official confirmation of such contacts between the two warring sides.
The government has been locked in a grinding conflict with the rebels, but in recent weeks both sides have mooted the possibility of talks to end the 21-month war, with Ethiopia pushing for the AU to lead any negotiations.
The rebels on the other hand, want Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, who has been actively involved in peace efforts, to mediate between the two parties.
The AU’s Horn of Africa envoy Olusegun Obasanjo has been leading a diplomatic push to end the conflict, briefing the bloc’s Peace and Security Council on his progress.
In a statement dated August 4 but posted on its website on Thursday, the Peace and Security Council said it “commends the AU High Representative for the direct engagements between the Government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).”
The statement is the first public confirmation of direct contact between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed‘s government and the TPLF, whose leader Debretsion Gebremichael has insisted that key services would have to be reinstated in Tigray before dialogue could begin.
The AU council called on the warring sides “to place the supreme interests of Ethiopia and its people above all else and embrace inclusive political dialogue as the only viable approach towards finding a consensual solution to the current situation.”
It also urged international partners to “scale up their support for the AU-led mediation process, under the leadership of… Obasanjo, as the only viable and effective approach towards finding a negotiated lasting solution to the situation in Ethiopia.”
Fighting has eased in northern Ethiopia since a humanitarian truce was declared at the end of March, allowing the resumption of desperately needed international aid convoys to Tigray’s six million people.
Since the war broke out, Ethiopia’s northernmost region has suffered food shortages and access to basic services such as electricity, communications and banking has been severely limited.
In November 2020, Abiy ordered troops into Tigray to topple the TPLF, accusing the rebels of attacking federal army camps.
The TPLF mounted a shock comeback in June last year, retaking Tigray and expanding into neighboring Afar and Amhara, before the war reached a stalemate.