NAIROBI: Fighting between forces from Ethiopia's rebellious northern region of Tigray and central government forces has erupted around the town of Kobo, residents and both sides said on Wednesday (Aug 24), ending a months-long ceasefire.
The fighting is a major blow to hopes for peace talks between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the party that controls Tigray.
Each side blamed the other for the outbreak of fighting.
"At 5am today (the TPLF) has attacked on the Eastern Front; from Bisober, Zobel and Tekulshe direction ... it has effectively broken the ceasefire," the government's communications service said in a statement.
A day earlier, as social media lit up with allegations of troops on the move, the military accused the Tigrayan forces of preparing to attack and cover their tracks by spreading fake news of military movements.
"It has become an open secret that they (the TPLF) are campaigning to incriminate our army," said the statement, accusing the TPLF of mounting "pre-conflict propaganda".
In turn, the military command of the Tigrayan forces accused the government of violating the ceasefire, saying in a statement it believed the attack near Kobo, to the south of Tigray, was a diversion and its forces expected a major attack from the west.
TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael, in his own statement to the international community, said, "The peace process is being set up to fail" and accused the government of trying to block investigations into war crimes, withhold key services and blockade the region.
A government spokesman did not return a message seeking comment, but the government has repeatedly said it is not blockading Tigray. Ethiopia has tried to block funding for a UN enquiry into abuses.
Three residents around Kobo reported hearing heavy weapons since early morning. They also said there had been movement of Ethiopian soldiers, Amhara special forces and volunteer Fano militia in the past two days.
They said they did not know who had started the fighting. Reuters could not immediately get information on the movements of Tigrayan forces. Telephone connections inside Tigray have been down for more than a year.
Redwan Hussein, national security adviser to the prime minister, said the Ethiopian army had shot down a plane carrying weapons to Tigray which entered Ethiopian airspace from neighbouring Sudan. He did not share the location where the plane was shot down.
TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda in a tweet said the statement was "a blatant lie". A Sudanese military spokesman was not reachable for comment.
The fighting in Africa's second most populous nation has displaced millions of people, pushed parts of Tigray into famine and killed thousands of civilians.
War erupted in Tigray in November 2020 and spilled into the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara a year ago. Last November, Tigrayan forces marched towards Addis Ababa, but were driven back by a government offensive that month.
A ceasefire was announced in March after both sides fought to a bloody stalemate and the government declared a humanitarian truce, allowing badly needed food aid into the region.
In June, Abiy's government formed a committee to negotiate with the TPLF, and earlier this month the government said it wanted talks "with no preconditions". Tigray's government has called for the restoration of services to civilians before talks begin, a call echoed by diplomats.
Tigray has been without banking and communication services since the military pulled out at the end of June. Imports of fuel are restricted, limiting the distribution of aid.
On Wednesday, the United Nations said Tigrayan forces had seized 12 fuel tankers from a warehouse in Mekelle. The TPLF was not immediately available for comment.
Almost 90 per cent of people in the region need aid, the United Nations said, warning that rates of malnutrition had "skyrocketed" and the situation will worsen until October's harvest.
On Wednesday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed for a ceasefire, peace talks, full humanitarian access and the reestablishment of public services in Tigray.
The US State Department called on the Ethiopian government and the TPLF to redouble efforts to advance talks for a durable ceasefire.