The conflict in the Tigray region erupted in November 2020
The conflict in the Tigray region erupted in November 2020

Authorities in Ethiopia's rebel-held Tigray region announced Sunday they would respect a ceasefire as fighting intensified in the country's war-torn north, and the African Union called for an immediate truce.

International concern is growing around the fate of Shire, a city of 100,000 people in northwest Tigray, where Ethiopian and Eritrean troops have launched a joint offensive and civilian casualties have been reported.

UN chief Antonio Guterres has joined the United States and other Western powers in voicing alarm over the worsening violence and called for a peaceful settlement to "this catastrophic conflict".

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government and the Tigrayan authorities have accepted an AU invitation to talk, but negotiations set for last weekend in South Africa failed to materialise and no new date has been announced.

On Sunday, AU Commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat urged the warring sides to "recommit to dialogue as per their agreement to direct talks to be convened in South Africa".

"The Chairperson strongly calls for an immediate, unconditional ceasefire and the resumption of humanitarian services" to areas cut off by the fighting, Faki said in a statement released on Sunday, but dated Saturday.

Authorities in Tigray, which has been under rebel control since government forces were ousted in June 2021, welcomed the statement and said they would respect an internationally backed ceasefire.

"We are ready to abide by an immediate cessation of hostilities," their statement read.

"We also call on the international community to compel the Eritrean army to withdraw from Tigray, take practical steps towards an immediate cessation of hostilities, and press the Ethiopian Government to come to the negotiating table."

A spokesman for Ethiopia's government did not respond to a request for comment when contacted by AFP.

International alarm over the latest fighting came as US special envoy Mike Hammer arrived in Addis Ababa to push for a peaceful resolution to nearly two years of war.

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 on all sides.

"Intensively working with the African Union and other partners to launch an AU-led peace process in the coming days," the US State Department's Africa Bureau posted on Twitter on Sunday.

Talks were to be mediated by the AU'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 last weekend's much-anticipated meeting in South Africa not going ahead.

Fresh offensives on multiple fronts have halted desperately needed aid into Tigray, where the UN says millions have fled their homes, and hundreds of thousands are close to famine.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC), an aid organisation delivering relief to Tigray, announced on Saturday that one of its staff was among three civilians killed in an attack in Shire, while another was injured.

The World Food Programme (WFP) on Sunday said it received reports of Friday's 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 calls on all sides to respect international 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" and civilians have been fleeing, a humanitarian worker in the city told AFP on condition of anonymity.

US aid chief Samantha Power said of the escalating conflict in northern Ethiopia that "the risk of additional atrocities and 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 on Sunday.

Eritrea sided with Ethiopia when war began in November 2020 after Abiy accused Tigray's dissident ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), of 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 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.

Map of Ethiopia
Map of Ethiopia