Rebels from the Tigray region and the Ethiopian government resumed their talks in South Africa on Wednesday to "find a peaceful and lasting solution" to the conflict that has been ravaging northern Ethiopia for nearly two years.
These exchanges, under the aegis of the African Union (AU), began Tuesday in Pretoria, according to the South African presidency, specifying that they should continue until Sunday.
On Wednesday morning, several participants, including former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, were seen by AFP reporters entering the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the resumption of the talks.
No information has been released about the content of the talks and the media is being kept at a distance.
The AU Commission chairperson, Moussa Faki, had welcomed on Tuesday these efforts to "silence the weapons towards a united, stable, peaceful and resilient Ethiopia".
Tigrayan rebels and the federal army -- backed by forces from neighboring Ethiopian regions and the army of Eritrea, which borders Tigray -- have been fighting since November 2020 in a deadly conflict that has plunged northern Ethiopia into a serious humanitarian crisis.
After a five-month truce, the fighting resumed in August. Ethiopian and eritrean forces recently announced that they had seized several towns, including Shire, one of the main ones in Tigray.
The United Nations is alarmed by the renewed violence, which is blocking the delivery of aid to this region of six million people. Its High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, urged the warring parties on Tuesday, "for the sake of your own people," to open a "path to peace.
U.S. diplomatic chief Antony Blinken called on the parties to "engage seriously in these discussions to achieve a lasting resolution to the conflict. Washington said its envoy Mike Hammer was participating.
- Conflict behind closed doors -
The meeting in Pretoria is the first public dialogue between the two sides. According to a Western official, previous secret contacts -- organized by the United States -- took place in the Seychelles and twice in Djibouti.
In addition to Obasanjo, who represents the AU in the Horn of Africa, and Kenyatta, the mediation team also includes former South African vice president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.
Last week, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said the war would "end and peace will prevail," without mentioning the negotiations, while pro-government forces have recently stepped up their offensive in Tigray.
A spokesman for the rebels repeated their demands on Twitter on Sunday evening: "immediate cessation of hostilities, unhindered humanitarian access and withdrawal of Eritrean forces".
Their leader Debretsion Gebremichael adopted a more martial tone on Monday, assuring that "the joint enemy forces that entered Tigray (would) be buried.
The war began in November 2020 when Mr. Abiy sent the army into Tigray to dislodge regional authorities from the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which challenged his authority and which he accused of attacking military bases.
The TPLF dominated Ethiopia's ruling coalition for decades before Mr. Abiy came to power in 2018 and pushed them aside.
The toll of the conflict, which is largely behind closed doors, is unknown. The press has no access to northern Ethiopia and communications there operate haphazardly, making independent verification of information impossible.
The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, estimated on Friday that in two years "up to half a million people have died.
The war has also displaced more than two million Ethiopians and plunged hundreds of thousands into near-starvation conditions, according to the UN.
The conflict has been marked by accusations of abuses against civilians by both sides. Amnesty