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Ethiopia's Tigray rebels said Sunday they were ready to take part in peace talks led by the African Union, removing an obstacle to potential negotiations with the government to end almost two years of brutal warfare.
The announcement was made amid a flurry of international diplomacy after fighting flared last month for the first time in months in northern Ethiopia, torpedoing a humanitarian truce.
"The government of Tigray is prepared to participate in a robust peace process under the auspices of the African Union," said a statement by the authorities in the northernmost region of Tigray.
"Furthermore we are ready to abide by an immediate and mutually agreed cessation of hostilities in order to create a conducive atmosphere."
There was no immediate comment from the Ethiopian government, which has long insisted that any peace process must be brokered by the Addis Ababa-headquartered AU.
But the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) had until now vehemently opposed the role of the AU's Horn of Africa envoy Olusegun Obasanjo, protesting at his "proximity" to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
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Sunday's statement, which coincided with Ethiopia's new year, made no mention of any preconditions for talks, although it said it expected a "credible" peace process with "mutually acceptable" mediators as well as international observers.
TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael had earlier this month proposed a truce with four conditions including "unfettered humanitarian access" and the restoration of essential services in war-stricken Tigray.
In a letter to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, he had also called for the withdrawal of Eritrean forces from across Ethiopia, and for troops to pull out of western Tigray, a disputed region claimed by both Tigrayans and Amharas, the country's second-largest ethnic group.
'Choose talks over fighting'
On Saturday, the AU's Commission chief Moussa Faki Mahamat had announced that Obasanjo's mandate would be extended.
"I reiterated my full confidence in him & encouraged his continued engagement with both parties & intl actors to work towards peace & reconciliation in Ethiopia & the region," Faki said on Twitter after meeting Obasanjo.
Faki also said he had held talks Saturday with visiting US envoy for the Horn of Africa, Mike Hammer.
"May the parties in the conflict have the courage to choose talks over fighting, and participate in an African Union-led process that produces a lasting peace," Hammer said in a new year's message for Ethiopians on Sunday.
Fighting has raged on several fronts in northern Ethiopia since hostilities resumed on August 24, with both sides accusing the other of firing first and breaking a March truce.
The combat first broke out around Tigray's southeastern border, but has since spread along to areas west and north of the initial clashes, with the TPLF accusing Ethiopian and Eritrean forces of launching a massive joint offensive on September 1.
The United Nations had said on Thursday that the renewed fighting had forced a halt to desperately needed aid deliveries to Tigray, both by road and air.
The March truce had allowed aid convoys to travel to Tigray's capital Mekele for the first time since mid-December.
But in its first situation report since the latest clashes broke out, the UN's humanitarian agency OCHA said the violence was "already impacting the lives and livelihood of vulnerable people, including the delivery of lifesaving humanitarian assistance".
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