Ethiopia, Tigray head invited to peace talks in South Africa

FILE - Ethiopian military parade with national flags attached to their rifles at a rally organized by local authorities to show support for the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), at Meskel square in downtown Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on Nov. 7, 2021. The Tigray forces battling Ethiopian troops said Sunday, Sept. 11, 2022, they’re willing to abide by an immediate cessation of hostilities and participate in a peace process led by the African Union, a significant shift that came after new pressure by the United States and others following the renewal of fighting last month that shattered months of relative calm. (AP Photo, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — The leader of Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region and the central government have been invited to peace talks in South Africa this weekend as part of a pan-African effort to end one of the world’s most overlooked wars, according to a letter seen Wednesday by The Associated Press.

If Debretsion Gebremichael attends the proposed talks between the Tigray and Ethiopian sides, it will be the highest-level effort yet to end the two-year war that has killed thousands of people from conflict and starvation.

A diplomat in Addis Ababa said the AU was still waiting for a response from the Tigray side. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

The letter from the chair of the African Union Commission says the AU-convened talks would be “aimed at laying the foundation for a structured and sustained mediation” between the two sides toward a “durable resolution of the conflict.”

The spokesman for the Tigray forces, Getachew Reda, could not immediately be reached on Wednesday.

Ethiopia's government in a statement confirmed the invitation to the talks and said it is “consistent with the Ethiopian government's prior positions” that talks be mediated by the AU and be held without preconditions. The statement, however, does not give details about who might attend.

The AU letter says the talks would be facilitated by AU special envoy and former Nigerian President Olesegun Obasanjo with the support of former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and former South African Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.

The talks come more than a month after fighting in Tigray renewed following months of relative calm. Forces from neighboring Eritrea, allied with Ethiopia's government, are again joining the fighting in what Tigray forces have described as a large-scale offensive.

The Tigray region has been largely cut off from the world since the war began in November 2020, with more than 5 million people without basic services including electricity, phone, internet and banking. Medicines have run desperately low. On Thursday, the U.N. said trapped staffers were finally able to rotate out of the region for the first time since the fighting renewed.

The fighting also has spilled over into Ethiopia's neighboring regions of Amara and Afar as Tigray forces have tried to pressure the government, putting hundreds of thousands of other civilians at risk.

United Nations-based investigators have said all sides have committed abuses.