Tigrayan rebels have begun handing in their heavy weapons, a key part of an agreement signed more than two months ago to end a gruelling conflict in northern Ethiopia, a spokesman for the rebel authorities said.
The handover in the town of Agulae, about 30km (18 miles) northeast of the regional capital Mekelle, was overseen by a monitoring team comprising members of the two sides and a regional body, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).
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The terms of a peace agreement signed on November 2 include disarming rebel forces, restoring federal authority in Tigray and reopening access and communications to the region, which has been cut off since mid-2021.
Fighting broke out in November 2020 when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed deployed the army to arrest Tigrayan leaders who had been challenging his authority for months and whom he accused of attacking federal military bases.
“Tigray has handed over its heavy weapons as part of its commitment to implementing the #Pretoria agreement” that was signed between Ethiopia’s government and Tigrayan rebels, Tigray People’s Liberation Front spokesman Getachew Reda said in a tweet on Wednesday.
“We hope & expect this will go a long way in expediting the full implementation of the agreement.”
At the handover ceremony, Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) representative Mulugeta Gebrechristos said the start of the disarmament would play a major role in restoring peace.
“We are operating with the belief that if we are to have peace, all things that open the door for provocation must not be there. Peace is vital for us all,” Mulugeta said in a speech broadcast on the local Tigrai TV.
“We are all [part of] one Ethiopia. Both us and the TDF have moved from our respective defensive positions in peace, understanding and love,” Aleme Tadesse, a representative of the Ethiopian army, said.
A November 12 deal on the implementation of the agreement said the disarmament of heavy Tigrayan weapons would take place at the same time as the withdrawal of foreign and non-federal forces.
Neighbouring Eritrea has supported the Ethiopian army in fighting in the region but Asmara did not participate in the Pretoria talks.
An Ethiopian government delegation, including the prime minister’s national security adviser Redwan Hussein and several ministers, visited Mekelle on December 26, marking a major step in the peace process.
A few days later, on December 29, Ethiopian federal police entered Mekelle for the first time in 18 months.
The precise toll of the conflict, which was largely fought amid media restrictions, is unknown.
The International Crisis Group think tank and rights group Amnesty International have described it as “one of the deadliest in the world”.
The fighting has stopped since November’s peace deal, the rebels claiming to have disengaged 65 percent of their fighters from the front lines.
But Tigrayans have denounced the “atrocities” they say have been committed by Eritrea’s army and the forces of Ethiopia’s neighbouring Amhara region, which have supported the federal army in the conflict.
Tigrayan authorities, as well as residents and aid workers who spoke to the AFP news agency, accuse them of looting, rape, executions and abductions of civilians.
With access to Tigray restricted, it is impossible to independently verify the situation on the ground, including the presence of Eritrean forces.
Humanitarian operations have been ramped up since the peace deal, but the amount of food and medical aid being delivered remains far below the enormous needs.
Mekelle was connected to the national power grid on December 6.
Ethiopia’s main bank CBE said on December 19 that it was resuming operations in some towns, and telephone communications with the region have begun to be restored.
The war has displaced more than two million Ethiopians and left more than 13.6 million people dependent on humanitarian aid in northern Ethiopia, the UN said
It also, according to the UN, plunged hundreds of thousands of people into near-famine conditions.