Ethiopia sets out terms of possible talks with Tigray rebels

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Ethiopia on Thursday outlined conditions for possible talks with rebels from the country's war-hit Tigray region, following days of frantic diplomatic efforts by international envoys to head off another surge in fighting.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government has been locked in a year-long war with the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which has pushed south in recent months and has not ruled out a possible march on the capital Addis Ababa.

Foreign ministry spokesman Dina Mufti told reporters that one of the conditions for possible talks -- which he stressed have not been agreed to -- would be for the TPLF to withdraw from the Amhara and Afar regions bordering Tigray.

"In order for there to be a peaceful solution, they say it takes two to tango," Dina said.

"There are conditions: First, stop your attacks. Secondly, leave the areas you have entered (Amhara and Afar). Third, recognise the legitimacy of this government," he said.

"By the way, don't misunderstand, it's not being said a decision has been made to enter into negotiations," he added.

TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda told AFP at the weekend that pulling out from Amhara and Afar before talks begin is "an absolute non-starter".

- Aid blocked -

The TPLF is demanding an end to what the UN describes as a de facto humanitarian blockade on Tigray, where hundreds of thousands of people are believed to be living in famine-like conditions.

No aid has gone into Tigray by road since October 18, and 364 trucks are stuck in the capital of Afar "pending authorisation from the authorities to proceed", the UN said Thursday in a weekly report on the humanitarian situation.

"It is estimated that 80 percent of essential medication is no longer available in Tigray while most health facilities are not functional due to damage and lack of supplies," it said.

The region's biggest hospital, Ayder Referral Hospital in the Tigray capital Mekele, has been forced to close its cancer treatment programme, "leaving some 500 patients without treatment", it said.

Last week the government imposed a nationwide state of emergency, triggering a fresh wave of mass arrests that has further hobbled the aid response.

Some 22 UN staffers have been detained in the raids that rights groups say target ethnic Tigrayans, and nine remained in custody as of Wednesday.

The UN has also sounded the alarm about 72 drivers contracted by the World Food Programme who have been detained in Afar.

The government describes such arrests as part of a legitimate effort to stamp out the TPLF.

Asked about the detentions, Dina said UN workers "have the duty to respect Ethiopian people and Ethiopian law", though he acknowledged that "mistakes can be made" and would be investigated.

The European Union has decided to withdraw non-essential staff from Ethiopia, a diplomat in Addis Ababa said Thursday, following several other foreign missions including the US embassy.

Separately, a government statement said all landlords have a week to provide information about their tenants to the police "to assist security forces in their efforts to clean those who pose a threat to public safety."

More than 27,500 youths have also been recruited to help in security operations in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopia Press Agency (EPA) quoted a city official as saying.

- High-level talks -

International envoys have in recent days stepped up efforts to broker a cessation of hostilities.

Jeffrey Feltman, US special envoy for the Horn of Africa, left Ethiopia on Wednesday following several days of meetings there and in neighbouring Kenya, according to officials briefed on his movements.

Former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, the African Union's special envoy for the region, was due to leave Thursday after a final meeting with Abiy, the officials said.

He has also recently travelled to Mekele to meet TPLF leaders.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Obasanjo on Wednesday and offered "strong support" for his mediation efforts, the State Department said.

He voiced hope that there was a "window" for progress.

Yet it is far from clear how major gaps between the two sides can be bridged.

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