NAIROBI, Kenya — Ethiopia began taking shaky steps toward peace on Thursday, a day after the government and forces in the northern Tigray region agreed to a permanent cessation of hostilities, a surprising turn of events that could end a two-year civil war — one of the world’s bloodiest contemporary conflicts.
The deal appears to be a decisive victory for Ethiopia’s government and its prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who prosecuted the war — and could be hard for leaders of the Tigray region to sell to their people, experts on the region said on Thursday.
The agreement, signed with fanfare in South Africa on the eve of the war’s second anniversary, calls for the full disarmament of Tigray’s forces within 30 days, according to a copy of the final deal — which has not been published, but was obtained by The New York Times. It says that senior commanders from both sides are to meet within five days to figure out how disarmament will happen.
The deal also paves the way for Ethiopia’s federal troops to enter Tigray’s regional capital, Mekelle, in a manner that is “expeditious, smooth, peaceful and coordinated,” and federal security forces to take over all airports, highways and federal facilities within the Tigray region. Those are the troops that have been fighting the Tigrayans for the last two years, and some are accused by human rights groups and the United Nations of carrying out atrocities that amount to war crimes.
Mr. Abiy, Ethiopia’s prime minister, speaking to a cheering crowd in the country’s southwest on Thursday, hailed the agreement and lauded his army, saying that their “historical victory” on the battlefield had paved the way for the peace deal. He called on the Tigrayan people to end the bloodshed, and said, “Tricks, evilness and sabotage should stop here.”
Tigrayan leaders did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday. But Kjetil Tronvoll, a scholar of Ethiopian politics and professor of peace and conflict studies at Oslo New University College, said that it will be “an extremely controversial issue” to convince Tigrayan forces to “voluntarily disarm and make themselves indefensible in the face of an enemy they have been fighting for two years.”
Among Tigrayans and their forces, he added, this move will be seen as “capitulation.”
The war, which broke out on Nov. 3, 2020, was seen as an effort by Mr. Abiy to exert control over leaders of the restive Tigray region, who had bucked his authority by holding a local election. Leaders of the Tigrayan ethnic group, while a minority in Ethiopia, for nearly three decades were the principle power bloc in the Ethiopian government — but Mr. Abiy pushed them out soon after he came to power in 2018.
The latest truce between these entrenched enemies was hammered out in peace talks convened by the African Union last week in Pretoria, South Africa. Just before the talks began, the Ethiopian military captured several towns in Tigray — leaving Tigrayan negotiators in a weaker position during the touchy negotiations, analysts said.
The grinding war has left hundreds of thousands dead and millions of people displaced. It has cast a pall on Ethiopia, battering what was its once fast-growing economy, eroding its regional standing and fraying the social fabric among its diverse ethnic groups.
The diplomatic breakthrough on Wednesday promised to halt this, with both parties signing a joint agreement to lay down their arms, stop disseminating “hostile propaganda,” and expedite the flow of humanitarian supplies into Tigray.
Ethiopia’s government, for its part, promised to restore “essential services” to the Tigray region — which has remained cut off during the war from electricity, water, telecommunications and banking. Ethio Telecom, the state telecommunications company, said on Thursday evening it restored service to towns in southern Tigray, which Ethiopian troops had recently seized from Tigrayan forces.
The government also agreed to “facilitate the lifting of the terrorist designation” of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the region’s political leadership and its fighting forces.
On Thursday, regional observers and analysts wondered why the African Union had not yet published an official copy of the agreement and whether two important parties that were not included in the deal might hinder its success.
The deal did not include neighboring Eritrea, whose troops have fought alongside the Ethiopian government in the war, and have been accused of some of the most egregious atrocities, including ethnic massacres and sexual violence. Neither the president of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki, nor his representatives, have commented on the signing of the truce.
The peace deal notes that Ethiopian defense forces will staff international borders to safeguard against any “provocation or incursion from either side of the border” — a possible reference to Eritrea, while not specifying which borders.
Another tricky matter will be how the deal will resolve the issue of contested land or even facilitate the return and reintegration of internally displaced people and refugees.
Also left out of the talks were members of Ethiopia’s Amhara region, who have been fighting on the side of the Ethiopian government in the war and have a border dispute with Tigray.
Dessalegn Chanie Dagnew, an ethnic Amhara leader and a member of Parliament representing the National Movement of Amhara party, said his group was disappointed not to be included in the talks. He said that while he welcomed the deal, he remained concerned that it did not determine that disputed areas, like Welkait and Raya, belong to ethnic Amharas — and not to Tigrayans.
“Any arrangement or outcome that doesn’t recognize these lands as Amhara means there will not be lasting peace in the region,” he said. “That is our red line.”
While Mr. Abiy may have vanquished his foes in the Tigray region, he still faces unrest in other parts of the country. A wave of deadly interethnic attacks has rocked the Oromia and Somali regions in recent months, further destabilizing the country, which is already facing devastating drought and disease outbreaks.
On Thursday, many Ethiopians hoped the deal would bring much-needed respite.
“Peace is good, but why did it have to come this late,” said Mare Tilahun, a 45-year-old construction worker in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, who lost a relative to the war. “The country is in a bad shape.”
An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.