PM Abiy Ahmed announces formation of a working group led by deputy PM that "will study how we will conduct talks" with Tigrayan rebels to end nearly two-year conflict in Africa's second-most populous nation.
Ethiopia's federal government has formed a committee to negotiate with forces from the rebellious northern region of Tigray, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said, in the first public confirmation of a key step towards peace negotiations.
"Regarding the peace ... a committee has been established and it will study how we will conduct talks," Abiy told parliament on Tuesday, the first time he has publicly referred to the body.
The committee, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen, has 10 to 15 days to hammer out details of negotiations.
Debretsion Gebremichael, chairman of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), said his group was prepared to participate in a "credible, impartial and principled" peace process and would send a delegation.
"We are not prepared to make secret deals or bargain away our principles for material inducements," Debretsion said in an open letter posted on Twitter.
The nearly two-year conflict in Ethiopia, Africa's second-most populous nation, has displaced more than nine million people, plunged parts of Tigray into famine conditions and killed thousands of civilians.
The TPLF — a former rebel army turned political party — dominated national politics for nearly three decades until Abiy's appointment in 2018 reduced their rule to Tigray.
The TPLF accused Abiy of wanting to centralise power at the expense of the regions, while he said they were seeking to regain national power.
Fighting erupted in Tigray in November 2020 and spilled over into the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara last year.
Troops from neighbouring Eritrea also entered the conflict in support of Abiy's force. Eritrean and Ethiopian forces withdrew from most of Tigray in mid-2021 and the Abiy government declared a unilateral ceasefire in March.
Legislator Desalegn Chane said on Tuesday that negotiations should not exclude Amhara and Eritrean forces. Both fought on the side of the Ethiopian military but faced mounting accusations of abuses, which they denied.
Last month, regional state media reported 4,000 people had been arrested in Amhara — including a prominent general, militia members and journalists.
Analysts said it appeared that the central government was trying to reassert its authority over some Amhara factions; the government said the arrests were related to "illegal activities" and possible killings.
The war between the national government forces and its allies and the Tigrayan forces has upset Abiy's plans to modernise Ethiopia's state-run economy.
Widespread reports of mass killings of civilians and sexual violence and allegations of ethnic cleansing also triggered Ethiopia's suspension from a major trade agreement that gave Ethiopia preferential access to US markets — a move the government said could cost the nation one million jobs.
The government has said the reports of rights abuses are exaggerated.
A UN investigation found all sides had committed abuses, but although the national rights body has released reports on abuses in Amhara and Afar, the full extent of killings and rapes in Tigray has yet to be documented.