Ethiopia government says no further advance into Tigray
Ethiopia's government said on Friday that its troops would not advance further into the war-torn region of Tigray but warned that the decision could be overturned if "territorial sovereignty" was threatened.
The announcement comes days after the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) rebel group declared a retreat to their Tigray stronghold, and signals a pause in fighting following a series of battlefield victories claimed by the government.
Although unconfirmed, the TPLF pullout from the Amhara and Afar regions had raised hopes there would be talks to end a 13-month conflict that has killed thousands and left parts of the country on the brink of famine.
On Friday, the government communication service released a statement saying federal forces had secured eastern Amhara and Afar and been ordered to "vigilantly remain in areas under our control".
"The Ethiopian government has decided not to command its forces to further advance into the Tigray region," it said in the statement shared on Twitter.
UN chief Antonio Guterres welcomed the Ethiopian government's announcement and the message from the Tigrayan forces, his deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said.
"The secretary-general urges the parties to grasp this opportunity, cease hostilities in the year-long conflict, take all steps to ensure the provision of much-needed humanitarian assistance, the withdrawal of foreign fighters, and address political differences through a credible and inclusive national dialogue," Haq said in a statement.
The temporary halt to fighting may help lower the temperature after months of battles that have seen both sides claim major territorial gains.
At one point, the rebels claimed to be only 200 kilometres (125 miles) by road from the capital Addis Ababa, sparking alarm among foreign governments who urged their citizens to leave the country as soon as possible.
But since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed - the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner - headed to the front last month, according to state media, the government has claimed to have retaken a string of key towns.
The government has dismissed Monday's withdrawal announcement by the TPLF as a cover-up for military setbacks.
Communications have been cut in the conflict zone and access for journalists is restricted, making it difficult to verify battlefield claims.
The fighting in Africa's second most populous nation has displaced more than two million people and more than nine million are in need of food aid, according to UN estimates.
There have been reports of massacres, mass rapes and other atrocities by all sides, and the UN Human Rights Council last week ordered a probe into a wide range of alleged abuses, a move condemned by Addis Ababa.
The war broke out in November last year when Abiy sent troops into Tigray to topple the TPLF, accusing its fighters of attacking army camps.
He vowed a swift victory, but the TPLF mounted a shock comeback, recapturing most of Tigray by June and then advancing into Afar and Amhara.