The Tigray rebel forces fighting Ethiopia’s federal army have said they will release 4,000 prisoners of war as part of an amnesty.
The Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) announced the prisoner release on Twitter on Friday, amid an escalating war of words between Ethiopian and Tigray regional officials over provocations and preparations for another round of fighting in the country that has been mired in conflict for more than 18 months.
Ethiopia’s civil war erupted in November 2020 when the central government sent troops in to topple the Tigray region’s governing TPLF party, saying it was in response to rebel attacks on army camps.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been driven to the brink of famine, more than two million people have been displaced and more than nine million left in need of food aid, the United Nations has said.
Aid groups said federal forces have sealed off the Tigray region since July 2021, frustrating the delivery of food and desperately needed aid.
In recent months, Ethiopia has relaxed the restrictions somewhat to allow a better flow of aid into the Tigray region.
The Tigray forces decided to release 4,208 prisoners of war with an amnesty, out of whom 401 are women, according to the TPLF tweet.
“Most of them were captured [in fighting] outside of the Tigray region, and others joined the fight in a forced conscription,” Birhane Kebede, coordinator of the prisoners’ centre in the region, was quoted as saying by the regional party.
Birhane said those with disabilities, illnesses and women who gave birth in detention were given priority for release.
Statement on the Release of Prisoners of War.
May 20, 2022. pic.twitter.com/I1MbEuMtOL
— Tigray External Affairs Office (@TigrayEAO) May 20, 2022
The decision to release the prisoners followed weeks of talks held between military commanders on both sides, according to a foreign diplomat in Addis Ababa, who said talks at the political level have not yet taken place.
This is the second time Tigray forces have announced the release of prisoners of war. In July 2021, they announced the release of 1,000 federal army soldiers after parading them in front of the public.
“These releases are probably both a sign of goodwill and also of the acute food shortage in Tigray,” William Davison, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Ethiopia, told The Associated Press.
“Now that aid flows to the [Tigray] region have increased amid a prolonged lull in large-scale fighting, the federal government should restore vital services such as banking and advance the peace process by opening talks on a permanent ceasefire with Tigray’s leaders,” he said.
The announcement came as the United Nations said more than 300 aid trucks arrived in Tigray from May 10-16.
“Three hundred nineteen trucks of humanitarian cargo entered Tigray during the reporting week, the highest number of trucks entering the region in a single week since June 2021,” the UN humanitarian agency OCHA reported.
“In total, 571 trucks have arrived in [the regional capital] Mekelle making a total of nine humanitarian convoys since the resumption of convoy movement on 1 April, following an interruption of more than three months,” OCHA said.