A new phase appears to be under way in the Tigray war which erupted in November 2020.

Since late December last year Tigrayan forces have mostly been inside the region. The withdrawal of their troops from the Amhara and Afar regions concluded by 23 December 2021.

In return, the Ethiopian government halted its own offensives, as Reuters reported: “For now, Ethiopian troops will stay in two liberated regions and not cross into the war-ravaged northern region of Tigray, a government spokesman said.”

For the past three months there has been a lull in most of the fighting, with strong suggestions of negotiations between the two sides, overseen by the United States. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy is said to have held direct talks with President Debretsion of Tigray.

Rashid Abdi, one of the best know analysts in the Horn of Africa was sceptical. “Tigray Defence Forces TDF stopped taking Addis because of international pressure. TDF pulled out of Amhara, parts of Afar in response to US, Kenya, AU pressure. In return, Tigray got nothing. Not 1 concession.”

Last week’s limited ceasefire and promises of deliveries of aid were apparently the first outcome of this process. Ethiopia’s government declared an immediate “humanitarian truce” with Tigrayan forces to allow aid into the besieged northern region where millions of people are facing starvation. This was confirmed by the Tigrayan government, who responded by calling for “concrete steps” to make these promises a reality.

No aid

It is now clear that no aid has yet arrived in Tigray. “A week has passed since the truce was announced, but no food has been allowed into Tigray yet. Every hour makes a difference when people are starving to death,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general at the World Health Organization, during a press conference Wednesday.

Rashid Abdi had this comment on the failure of the aid to arrive and the current fighting: “Everyone assumes Abiy can deliver on truce. Truth is he cannot. War has already been hijacked by ethnic militias. Amhara Fano + Afar militias have built a system of checkpoints around Tigray on all roads. They do this often with Addis/Asmara connivance. At times not.”

The World Food Programme hopes to still get aid through to Tigray in the next day or so, but cannot be sure they will succeed.

Of course the Afar route is only one way through to Tigray – the other routes are via the Amhara region. But these have been closed for many weeks; there’s little sign that the Amhara will allow aid through to Tigray.

Rather, the Amhara elite are furious with Prime Minister Abiy for his negotiations with the Tigrayan leadership. This has led to strengthening ties between Amhara leadership and Eritrea.

Fighting on two fronts

It now appears that what have been odd skirmishes since December last year have now taken the form of more serious fighting on two fronts.

The first is in Afar

Reuters has provided the first serious picture of fighting between Tigrayan and Afari forces.

“The TPLF and Afar forces dispute who started the most recent round of fighting in the northeastern region, which flared up in mid-January. The regional government estimates 300,000 people have had to abandon their homes.

The TPLF says they were responding to attacks on Tigray by Afar forces and allies, while Afar officials say Tigrayan forces were the aggressors.”

The situation is – as ever – unclear, since no outside journalists have been allowed up to the area to provide an independent report, but Reuters does quote aid officials who confirm that fighting has indeed taken place.

The second is along the Sudanese border

But there are also reports from Ethiopian and Tigrayan social media of fighting along the Sudan-Ethiopia border around the town of Humera, where both countries adjoin Eritrea.

Tigrayan fighters of what Ethiopia calls the ‘Samri force’ have reportedly been involved in the clashes. The force was raised from among Tigrayans who fled to Sudan when the war began, and have been living in Sudanese refugee centres. ‘Samri’ is an area in Mai Kadre – one of the towns in which fighting erupted early on in the war and which was the site of the first major atrocity. The Ethiopia Human Rights Council report on the events (a highly contested report) had this to say: “Victims said that on the day of the attack (November 9, 2020) police and Special Forces, as well as Tigrayan youths (mostly coming from the Samri neighborhood) ordered no one to leave their homes.”

 The Tigrayan source claims this force hasn’t been ordered by the Tigray government to advance into Western Tigray. To do so would further complicate the talks with Addis Ababa. Rather, the Tigrayans suggest the ‘Samri’ are standing their ground, repulsing repeated attacks by Ethiopian, Amhara and Eritrean forces. They report the coalition sustaining heavy losses.

Ethiopian media, on the other hand, claim the so-called ‘Samri force’ tried to penetrate western Tigray but was dealt a blow by Ethiopian forces.

This link shows ENDF movement around Gendaweha, near Metema and claims the Ethiopian army is either retreating or re-deploying its forces to border areas threatened by Tigrayan forces.

As ever, the absence access to the frontlines by independent media makes solid reporting impossible, but there appears to be a clear conclusion: fighting is increasing in Afar and western Tigray and no aid is yet reaching Tigray’s starving population.

At the same time there have been credible reports of Ethiopian troops being sent by the busload towards Tigray. Some 230 busses have been seen, with an estimated 18,000 soldiers on board.

Ethiopians say these were no more than troop rotations. Others are not so sure.

There have also been credible social media reporting and rumours that the Amhara have been trying to move north through Adi Arkai in the last few days.

Rashid Abdi suggests this as part of a pattern.

“Abiy never tells truth. Deception not tactical; it’s strategic. I am not surprised he wanted ‘humanitarian truce’ to camouflage his military plans. He just recently rearmed. He wants blood. Watch out for another ‘Northern Command’ type casus belli.”