Pretoria (AFP) - The warring sides in Ethiopia announced Wednesday an agreement to silence their guns after two years of devastating conflict that have claimed thousands of lives and left millions needing aid in Africa's second most populous country.
The surprise deal between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government and Tigrayan rebels was unveiled after little over a week of negotiations led by the African Union in South Africa and was hailed by the UN and the US among others.
"We have agreed to permanently silence the guns and end the two years of conflict in northern Ethiopia," the government and Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) said in a joint statement after marathon talks.
The breakthrough was announced by the African Union's mediator, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, almost exactly two years to the day since the war erupted in November 2020.
"Today is the beginning of a new dawn for Ethiopia, for the Horn of Africa and indeed for Africa as a whole," he said.
"The two parties in the Ethiopian conflict have formally agreed to the cessation of hostilities as well as the systematic, orderly, smooth and coordinated disarmament," Obasanjo said at a briefing in Pretoria.
They also agreed on a "restoration of law and order, restoration of services, unhindered access to humanitarian supplies, protection of civilians...among other areas of agreement", he added.
It was not immediately clear how the deal would be monitored to ensure it was implemented, and there was no mention by Obasanjo of international and rebel calls for Eritrea's feared army to withdraw from the battlefield.
'Welcome first step'
Diplomatic efforts to bring Abiy's government and the TPLF to the negotiating table had taken on renewed urgency after combat resumed in late August, torpedoing a five-month truce that had allowed limited amounts of aid into war-stricken Tigray.
The talks were launched on Tuesday last week and were initially scheduled to run until Sunday but were extended.
They were the first formal dialogue between the two sides since the start of the conflict that had raised concerns about the stability of Ethiopia and the volatile Horn of Africa region.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres hailed Obasanjo's announcement as "a welcome first step" that could "bring some solace" to millions of suffering civilians, his spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.
The United States also described it as an "important step towards peace", with State Department spokesman Ned Price hoping it would lead to a "durable cessation of hostilities to set the stage for an end to human rights abuses and atrocities".
The delegations in Pretoria said it was now up to both sides to honour the agreement, while Abiy himself vowed a "strong" commitment to its implementation.
The head of the government team, Abiy's national security adviser Redwan Hussein, praised the sides for their "constructive engagement to allow the country to put this tragic period of conflict behind us".
Tigrayan delegation chief Getachew Reda said they were ready to "implement and expedite this agreement", adding: "In order to address the pains of our people, we have made concessions because we have to build trust."
The war has forced well over two million people from their homes, and according to US estimates killed as many as half a million.
Despite the peace process in Pretoria, intense fighting had continued unabated in Tigray, where government troops backed by the Eritrean army and regional forces waged artillery bombardments and air strikes, capturing a string of towns from the rebels.
The international community had voiced increasing alarm over the combat and the toll among civilians caught in the crossfire.
Asked about Eritrea, South Africa's former vice president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who was facilitating the negotiations, said only: "These two parties (Ethiopia's government and Tigrayan authorities) are not the only two groups that are relevant for peace to happen in Ethiopia.
"So we are entrusting them with the responsibility of going back home to socialise this agreement...to ensure that many more people embrace this agreement."
Tigray, a region of six million people, has been under a communications blackout for much of the conflict, lacking basic services and facing dire shortages of food, fuel and medicines.
The conflict erupted on November 4, 2020, when Nobel peace laureate Abiy sent troops into Tigray after accusing the TPLF, the regional ruling party, of attacking federal army camps.
The fighting followed months of seething tensions between Abiy and the TPLF, which had dominated the ruling coalition in Ethiopia for almost three decades before he came to power in 2018.