The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tigray rebels announce plan to withdraw from neighboring Ethiopian regions

Ethiopian soldiers drink coffee in Kombolcha on Dec. 11, 2021, after the Ethiopian government said it had recaptured the town from the Tigray People's Liberation Front. (Amanuel Sileshi/AFP/Getty Images)

KHARTOUM, Sudan — The spokesman for Tigrayan rebels waging war with Ethiopia’s government confirmed Monday that rebel troops would be withdrawing from the neighboring regions of Afar and Amhara, where fierce fighting has displaced more than 300,000 people since July.

In a two-page letter sent Sunday to U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, the leader of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, Debretsion Gebremichael, said he hoped that bringing his troops back into the Tigray region would be a “decisive opening for peace.”

Battles have raged across Afar and Amhara over past months as control over strategic towns and highways repeatedly changed hands. Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, recently joined his troops on multiple stints in the battlefield. A spokesman for his government did not respond immediately to a request for comment, but both Abiy and other government officials have repeatedly called for the elimination of the TPLF’s leadership.

The war in Ethiopia, now in its 13th month, has been marked by allegations of large-scale atrocities on both sides, including summary executions, mass rapes and the use of civilians as shields. The northern region of Tigray has been under an effective communications blackout and humanitarian blockade, with only trickles of aid making it through federal government checkpoints. Aid agencies have warned of impending famine and said hundreds of thousands of people are already in near-famine conditions. Reports of Tigrayans being arbitrarily detained across Ethiopia are rife.

The withdrawal of TPLF-aligned troops and militias, if it goes ahead, would mark the closest Ethiopia has come to a cease-fire since the war began. It also would signal a major reversal for the TPLF, which had been moving quickly toward the country’s capital, Addis Ababa, before a concerted counteroffensive by the Ethiopian military and its allies. At the time, the TPLF’s spokesman, Getachew Reda, told The Washington Post that pulling out of Amhara and Afar was “out of the question until the siege on Tigray is lifted.”

One major sticking point that remains between the two sides is the status of a region on the border with Sudan that until the war belonged to Tigray but has since come under the control of Amhara militias. The Amhara government says the TPLF, which had dominated Ethiopian politics for nearly 30 years before Abiy rose to power, originally annexed the region from Amhara.

On a recent trip to the Sudanese border, a Post reporter met with newly arrived refugees who described a systematic campaign to empty the region of Tigrayans. One of them called it the “final stage of ethnic cleansing,” reprising a term used by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken as early as March to refer to mass expulsions of Tigrayans from the area.

Gizachew Muluneh, the Amhara regional government’s spokesman, said in a text message that there would be “no negotiation” over the disputed region. He said the TPLF’s intention to withdraw from Amhara did not change his view that the group must be destroyed.

“The people and the land of what they call Western Tigray all belongs to Amhara, so what kind of negotiations would there be?” he wrote. “The TPLF are terrorists who want to take the wealth of Amhara in particular and Ethiopia in general … and they will not stop until they are defeated.”