Mediators meet to bolster Ethiopia truce amid signs of detente

FILE PHOTO: A convoy of trucks from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) deliver lifesaving medical supplies are seen on the road to Mekelle

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) -Mediators between Ethiopia's federal government and authorities in the Tigray region, embroiled until last month in a brutal war, are stepping up efforts to enforce a truce as relations between the two sides inch closer toward normality.

The Nov. 2 ceasefire quieted a two-year conflict that killed tens of thousands and displaced millions in the Horn of Africa country, but implementation of parts of the deal has been slower than hoped.

Humanitarian workers in Tigray say troops from neighbouring Eritrea - which should have withdrawn under the terms of the truce - are still present in several towns there, a region where millions remain hungry and needing aid. Eritrea's government has not commented.

Both the issue of Eritrean forces and the restoration of services and humanitarian aid to Tigray were expected to be on the agenda of a monitoring team being set up by the mediators.

The mediators were gathering in Tigray's capital Mekelle, Nuur Mohamud Sheekh, spokesperson for the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), said on Thursday.

After more than a month-long delay, a joint monitoring and verification team comprising representatives of the government, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and IGAD has been assigned, government national security adviser Redwan Hussien told Reuters.

Tigrayan leaders have complained about delays establishing it and implementing other provisions of the truce.

Federal police said their officers had entered Mekelle and begun operations protecting federal institutions such as banks, the airport, and power and telecom infrastructures, in line with the provisions of the truce.

Getachew Reda, spokesperson for the regional TPLF, did not respond to requests for comment.

On other fronts, momentum toward better relations appears to be picking up.

State-owned Ethiopian Airlines resumed flights on Wednesday to Mekelle, the first in 18 months. Ethio Telecom reconnected its services to Mekelle and 27 other towns, while the government says humanitarian aid is being ramped up.

"We applaud the signing and launch of the African Union’s Monitoring, Verification and Compliance Mission (AU-MVCM) in Mekele, another important step toward securing lasting peace for the people of northern Ethiopia," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a written statement issued on Thursday.

"The United States stands ready to support the AU-MVCM and full implementation of the cessation of hostilities agreement (COHA), which includes disarmament of Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) combatants, withdrawal of Eritrean forces, unimpeded humanitarian access, resumption of essential services, and implementation of transitional justice," Blinken said.

(Reporting by Dawit Endeshaw; Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Writing by George Obulutsa; Editing by John Stonestreet, Mark Porter and Kim Coghill)