NAIROBI, Kenya. The Ethiopian government said on Friday it would release several prominent political prisoners, including members of the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front, as a step towards a peaceful resolution to the country’s fifteen-month-old civil war.
Among those set to be released was Jawar Mohammed, a prominent critic of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who was arrested in July 2020 during popular protests in which hundreds of demonstrators were killed.
The announcement, which coincided with Orthodox Christmas, comes just weeks after Mr. Abiy’s forces scored a series of battlefield victories against rebels from the country’s northern Tigray region, and raised rare hopes that some form of reconciliation might be possible.
In a statement, Mr. Abiy’s government said it would release the prisoners “to pave the way for a lasting solution to Ethiopia’s problems in a peaceful and non-violent way” through a “national dialogue”.
But there has been no mention of peace talks with its main enemy, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front or TPLF, which was forced to retreat to its stronghold in northern Ethiopia last month.
The group has said it is ready to end hostilities if Mr. Abiy fulfills certain conditions. Mr. Abiy had previously ruled out any talks with them.
“I think this is purely a political maneuver on the part of Abiy,” said Avol Allo, senior lecturer in law at the University of Keele in England. “National dialogue to solve our political problems is not the same as peace negotiations to end the war.”
Ever since Mr. Abiy, 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, launched hostilities in Tigray in November 2020, the conflict has been marked by accusations of widespread human rights abuses, ethnic cleansing and a humanitarian crisis that has left at least 400,000 people were at risk. hunger-like conditions.
In a statement on Friday, the government said “the key to lasting unity is dialogue.” But it also contained a note of triumph that said that “one of the moral obligations of the conqueror is mercy.” However, fighting continues in Tigray, where Mr. Abiy’s forces suffered a series of humiliating defeats last summer.
Analysts and foreign diplomats say Mr Abiy’s stunning military comeback in recent months has been made possible in large part by armed drones supplied by foreign allies, including the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, which have turned the tide on the battlefield.
For months, diplomats from the United States, Europe and neighboring African countries have privately and publicly called on Mr. Abiy to end the fighting and start peace talks with the Tigrayans and other armed opposition groups.
The Tigrayans said last month they were ready to enter into negotiations if the government released political prisoners, including thousands of ethnic Tigrayans detained by Ethiopian security forces in recent months, and ended the seven-month siege of Tigray that cut off vital supplies. food and medicines. But the government has not taken any of these steps.
Understand the Conflict in Ethiopia
The list of released prisoners includes Sebhat Nega, an octogenarian founding member of the TPLF who was captured by Ethiopian soldiers in the first weeks of the war.
But the most significant statement was undoubtedly that of Mr. Javar, the leader of the Oromo ethnic group, which makes up more than one-third of Ethiopia’s 110 million people and one of Mr. Abiy’s most formidable political opponents.
Mr. Abiy, then leader of the Oromo political party, came to power in 2018 after mass street protests by Oromo youth led by Mr. Jawar, founder of an influential media group and former US resident. .
But later, the two men quarreled and Mr. Javar accused Mr. Abiy of abandoning the Oromo cause. Mr. Abiy imprisoned Mr. Javar in July 2020 during violent protests that erupted following the unexplained murder of popular Oromo singer Khachalu Hundess.
In recent weeks, Mr. Abiy has been quietly negotiating with Mr. Jawar about his possible release, two foreign diplomats said. It was unclear if any conditions were attached to the release announced on Friday.