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Lead negotiator for Ethiopia’s government, Redwan Hussein, left, exchanges documents with lead Tigray negotiator Getachew Reda, right, as Alhaji Sarjoh Bah, director of conflict management of the African Union looks on, after the signing of a peace agreement in Pretoria, South Africa on Nov. 2.Themba Hadebe/The Associated Press

Ethiopian and Tigrayan authorities have signed a peace agreement to end a catastrophic war that has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and forced millions to flee their homes in northern Ethiopia over the past two years.

The agreement, after 10 days of peace talks mediated by the African Union in South Africa, was announced in Pretoria and signed by senior officials on the Ethiopian and Tigrayan sides on Wednesday.

Both sides acknowledged that the agreement is only a first step and will need intensive supervision and verification to ensure it is implemented. But the agreement is seen as a crucial breakthrough after several failed negotiations in the past between the Ethiopian government and the rebellious Tigray region.

The agreement includes a cessation of hostilities and promises of humanitarian access, disarmament, restoration of basic government services and protection of civilians. The two sides also agreed to seek an end to the hate speech that has fuelled much of the violence.

One of the key unknown factors is the reaction of Eritrea, which has deployed tens of thousands of troops into Tigray to support the Ethiopian military offensive. Eritrea was not present at the peace negotiations in Pretoria and its attitude to the agreement is unclear. The country is run by a secretive dictatorship that has never held elections.

The senior Tigrayan official at the talks, Getachew Reda, warned that there are “spoilers” who could try to “sabotage” the peace agreement.

“To sign an agreement is one thing, but to implement it is entirely another,” he told the signing ceremony. He said the Tigrayan side made painful concessions to reach the agreement, and he called on the international community to ensure the agreement is fulfilled.

Redwan Hussien, national security adviser to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, signed the peace agreement on behalf of his government. “It is now up to all of us to respect this agreement,” he said.

Mr. Abiy, in a statement later in the day, said the peace agreement is “monumental in moving Ethiopia forward.” He pledged his strong commitment to implementing the agreement. But in his statement, he declined to mention the Tigray region by name, he expressed no regret for the death and destruction caused by the war, and he gave his “deepest gratitude” to the Ethiopian military.

The war erupted in November, 2020, when Ethiopia sent thousands of troops into Tigray in an effort to crush the mutinous region, which had dominated the Ethiopian government in the decades before Mr. Abiy became prime minister in 2018.

An earlier unofficial ceasefire, beginning in March, was violated in August when large-scale fighting erupted again. The agreement on Wednesday is the first formal written agreement between the two sides.

Alan Boswell, the Horn of Africa director at the International Crisis Group, an independent think tank, said the peace agreement is “just the start of a long bumpy road” even if the first step is often the most crucial one.

In a commentary on Twitter, he said the coming days will be “extremely critical,” with several key issues remaining, including the questions of whether the fighting will stop, whether the two sides will have opposing interpretations of the text, and whether any dissent or divisions will emerge within each of the two sides.

The peace agreement calls for the disarmament of the Tigrayan military forces, with Tigray to be politically reintegrated back into Ethiopia, allowing the Ethiopian military to return to the region. Some analysts cautioned that the distrust on both sides could make this difficult, although a recent series of territorial losses by the Tigrayan forces has put pressure on the region to accept a peace deal.

Another potential problem is that the monitoring and supervision of the agreement would be done by a relatively small team of experts, headed by the African Union, without any international peacekeeping mission to enforce it.

African Union mediator Olusegun Obasanjo, a former Nigerian president, told the signing ceremony that the peace agreement is “a new dawn” for Ethiopia and all of Africa. But he added: “This moment is not the end of the peace process but the beginning of it. Implementation of the peace agreement is critical to the success of the process.”

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the agreement is “very much a welcome first step” that can start to bring “some solace to the millions of Ethiopian civilians that have really suffered during this conflict.”

For most of the past year, Ethiopian and Eritrean forces have imposed a devastating blockade on Tigray, preventing most food and medical supplies from reaching the region. The blockade has severely damaged medical care in the region and has triggered widespread malnutrition and even starvation, including a near-famine situation in some parts of Tigray, humanitarian groups say.

The director-general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said on Wednesday that the crisis in Tigray “remains catastrophic.” The siege of six million people in Tigray by the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces is “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world,” he told a briefing.

“Since the beginning of the siege, food, medicine and other basic services have been weaponized,” he said. “It has now been more than two months since the last humanitarian aid reached Tigray. But even before that, the aid reaching Tigray was a trickle – nowhere near enough to meet the needs.”

He and many other observers have warned that Tigray is on the verge of a genocide.

“Large numbers of displaced people are now arriving in, or moving toward, the regional capital Mekelle,” Dr. Tedros said. “Most UN agencies and NGOs [non-governmental organizations] have now left towns in the region’s northeast because of security concerns.”

The death toll in Tigray has been disastrous. As many as 600,000 people have died as a result of the war, according to a recent estimate by independent researchers at Ghent University in Belgium.

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