(This Mar.24 story corrects to change reference to Ahmed Harif in paragraph 17 to Ahmed, to conform with Ethiopian naming style)
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Ethiopia’s government on Thursday declared an immediate, unilateral truce in its conflict with rebellious Tigrayan forces to allow aid into the northern province, although it was not clear how it would enforce it.
“The government of Ethiopia hopes that this truce will substantially improve the humanitarian situation on the ground and pave the way for the resolution of the conflict in northern Ethiopia without further bloodshed,” the government said in a statement.
The United Nations has said more than 90% of the 5.5 million Tigrayans need food aid.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “hopes that this truce will translate into an effective cessation of hostilities, respected by all parties in this conflict, to allow for effective humanitarian access for all who need it,” a U.N. spokesperson said.
The 16-month-old conflict has pitted Tigray’s rulers – the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – against the central government led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
The U.S. State Department welcomed the news and said it strongly supported Ethiopia’s commitment to work with humanitarian organisations “to expedite the unimpeded delivery of assistance to all those in need.”
A spokesman for the Tigrayan forces did not respond to a request for comment on the announcement, which follows a visit by the U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, David Satterfield, to the capital Addis Ababa this week.
Ethiopia’s government has always said aid is permitted into Tigray, but only a tiny trickle has entered since Ethiopian troops withdrew from Tigray at the end of June last year.
It was not immediately clear how the central government would enforce its edict on the battlefield, where a mix of regional fighters and volunteer militias have been fighting TPLF forces.
Some convoys have been attacked and looted, others have been unable to get the necessary permission, and in November, local authorities in the region of Afar arrested more than 70 drivers contracted to deliver aid for the United Nations.
ADMINISTRATIVE AND SECURITY CONSTRAINTS
Tigrayan leaders have blamed federal authorities and regional governments in Afar and Amhara for blocking aid into Tigray, accusations they deny.
The central government has said Tigrayan fighters have blocked the aid because they have invaded Afar, a neighbouring region along the only land route currently open into Tigray.
The United Nations humanitarian arm OCHA said no trucks have made it into Tigray since Dec. 15, citing administrative as well as security constraints.
OCHA said the aid effort is hampered by a lack of funds, supplies and partners.
This week a U.N. convoy that tried to reach several towns under government control in Afar was stoned, the drivers beaten and the food stolen, according to three aid workers.
Afar police commissioner Ahmed Harif said the aid convoy had been looted by local people because of a misunderstanding over where the aid was going.
Ahmed denied ever blocking aid and said ongoing fighting along the border between two regions made delivering aid impossible.
Tigrayan forces first invaded Afar in July but were pushed back in December. They returned in January, seizing several areas along the road into Tigray – areas they still hold – and displacing more than 300,000 Afar residents.
Amhara regional spokesman Gizachew Muluneh also denied the regional government had ever blocked aid routes and said his administration would not oppose a truce as long as Tigrayan forces abandoned certain disputed border areas.
“If they leave these areas the routes will be opened,” Gizachew told Reuters.
(Reporting by Dawit Endeshaw and Giulia Paravicini; Writing by Katharine Houreld and Hereward Holland; Editing by Alison Williams, Nick Macfie, Alexandra Hudson)