PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — Ethiopia's warring sides agreed Wednesday to a permanent cessation of hostilities in a conflict believed to have killed hundreds of thousands, but enormous challenges lie ahead, including getting all parties to lay down arms or withdraw.
The war in Africa's second-most populous country, which marks two years on Friday, has seen abuses documented on both sides, with millions of people displaced and many near famine.
"The level of destruction is immense," said the lead negotiator for Ethiopia's government, Redwan Hussein. Lead Tigray negotiator Getachew Reda expressed a similar sentiment and noted that "painful concessions" had been made. Exhausted Ethiopians, urged by the parties to "stop voices of division and hate," watched them shake hands.
A draft text of the agreement, shared with The Associated Press by a diplomat, says Tigray forces will be disarmed, starting with "light weapons" within 30 days of Wednesday's signing, and Ethiopian federal security forces will take full control of "all federal facilities, installations, and major infrastructure such as airports and highways within the Tigray region." The final, detailed agreement was not made public, but the brief joint statement notes "a detailed program of disarmament" and "restoration of constitutional order" in Tigray.
Ethiopia's government will continue restoring basic services to the Tigray region, where communications, transport and banking links for more than 5 million people have been severed since fighting began. The parties also commit to unfettered humanitarian access.
"The devil will be in the implementation," said former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who helped facilitate the talks. An African Union panel with representatives from both sides and Africa experts will monitor the process.
It was not immediately clear when independent journalists and human rights researchers would be allowed into Tigray.
Major questions remain. Neighboring Eritrea, which has fought alongside Ethiopia, was not part of the peace talks. It's not clear to what extent its deeply repressive government, which has long considered Tigray authorities a threat, will respect the agreement. The draft says the Ethiopian and Tigray sides agree to stop "collusion with any external force hostile to either party." Eritrea's information minister didn't reply to questions.
Eritrean forces have been blamed for some of the conflict's worst abuses, including gang rapes, and witnesses have described killings and lootings by Eritrean forces even during the peace talks. On Wednesday, a humanitarian source said several women in the town of Adwa reported being raped by Eritrean soldiers, and some were badly wounded. The source, like many on the situation inside Tigray, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
Forces from Ethiopia's neighboring Amhara region also have been fighting Tigray forces, but Amhara representatives also were not part of the talks. "Amharas cannot be expected to abide by any outcome of a negotiations process from which they think they are excluded," said Tewodrose Tirfe, chairman of the Amhara Association of America.
But observers long strained by the conflict welcomed the agreement. "This is very much a welcome first step," said the United Nations secretary-general's spokesman, Stephane Dujarric. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield told reporters she was delighted because "what it means is that lives will be saved."
Another critical question is how soon aid can return to Tigray. Doctors have described running out of basic medicines like vaccines, insulin and therapeutic food while people die of easily preventable diseases and starvation. U.N. human rights investigators have said the Ethiopian government was using "starvation of civilians" as a weapon of war.
"We're back to 18th-century surgery," a surgeon at the region's flagship hospital, Fasika Amdeslasie, told health experts at an online event Wednesday. "It's like an open-air prison."
A humanitarian source said their organization could resume operations almost immediately if unfettered aid access to Tigray is granted.
"It entirely depends on what the government agrees to. ... If they genuinely give us access, we can start moving very quickly, in hours, not weeks," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
The conflict began in November 2020, less than a year after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for making peace with Eritrea, which borders the Tigray region. Abiy's government has since declared the Tigray authorities, who ruled Ethiopia for nearly three decades before Abiy took office, a terrorist organization. The Ethiopian government will facilitate the lifting of that designation, the draft agreement says.
The brutal fighting, which also spilled into the Amhara and Afar regions as Tigray forces pressed toward the capital last year, was renewed in August in Tigray after months of lull that allowed thousands of trucks of aid into the region. According to minutes of a Tigray Emergency Coordination Center meeting on Oct. 21, seen by the AP, health workers reported 101 civilians killed by drone strikes and airstrikes, and 265 injured, between Sept. 27 and Oct. 10 alone.
"The agreement signed today in South Africa is monumental in moving Ethiopia forward on the path of the reforms we embarked upon four and half years ago," Abiy said in a statement after the agreement. "Our commitment to peace remains steadfast."
But he made clear he saw the agreement as a win for his government. In a speech hours before Wednesday's announcement, the prime minster said: "We need to replicate the victory we got on the battlefield in peace efforts, too."