The Ethiopian rebels of Tigray, who had advanced in recent months in the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar, are withdrawing to their region to "open the door" to humanitarian aid, their spokesman told AFP on Monday.
"We have decided to withdraw from these areas to Tigray. We want to open the door to humanitarian aid," said Getachew Reda, spokesman for the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).
This announcement opens a new phase in the deadly conflict that has pitted pro-government forces against Tigrayan rebels and their allies for over a year.
Until now, the TPLF has described a withdrawal from these two regions, demanded by the government as a prerequisite for negotiations, as "absolutely not feasible.
"We are conducting phase-by-phase withdrawals. We started withdrawing our forces a few weeks ago. We are now announcing it," Getachew said on Monday, claiming that the rebels have "left" Lalibela.
This city, classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, has changed hands several times, as have other localities.
Since late October, both sides have claimed major territorial advances, but communications are cut off in the combat zones and access for journalists is restricted, making independent verification of positions on the ground difficult.
The war erupted in November 2020 after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent the federal army into the northern region of Tigray to remove local TPLF authorities who were challenging his authority and whom he accused of attacking military bases.
Abiy Ahmed declared victory three weeks later, after taking the regional capital Mekele. But in June, the TPLF retook most of Tigray and then advanced into the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara.
The conflict has left several thousand people dead, more than two million displaced and hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians living in near-starvation conditions, according to the UN.
On Friday, the world body gave the green light to an international mechanism to investigate the abuses committed in Ethiopia.
The intense diplomatic efforts led by the African Union in particular to try to reach a cease-fire have so far failed to produce any decisive progress.