Regional force leaves Tigray city as France, Germany call for 'justice'

The Ethiopian army announced the withdrawal of a regional force from a key Tigrayan city on Thursday under a peace deal to end two years of war as visiting European ministers said there could be no reconciliation without justice.

France and Germany's foreign ministers visited Ethiopia a day after Tigrayan rebels announced they were starting to surrender their heavy weapons -- a key component of the November 2 agreement to silence the guns in Africa's second most populous country.

And on Thursday the Ethiopian army said the Amhara special forces -- a regional force which backed the government in the war -- had withdrawn from the strategic Tigray city of Shire, meeting another key part of the peace deal.

The conflict in northern Ethiopia between the federal government and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) has claimed untold numbers of lives.

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said she welcomed "good progress which we encourage to continue" in the peace process.

"Hostilities have ceased, aid has been able to reach the regions which had not received it... a return of arms (by rebels) has begun," she said at a press briefing with her German counterpart Annalena Baerbock.

But the ministers urged the establishment of a transitional justice mechanism to punish abuses committed during the conflict.

"We, Germans and French, know from our own experience that reconciliation does not happen overnight. But without the prospect of justice for the victims of crimes, reconciliation and lasting peace are not possible," said Baerbock.

"The question of accountability is important for us with a view to Ethiopia's future and peace process, but also towards strengthening international law," she said following talks with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

Ethiopia's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen told the press conference that Addis Ababa would ensure crimes do not go unpunished.

He said Ethiopia had asked the UN human rights office and Ethiopia's own rights commission to deploy monitors in war-affected areas.

- 'Manipulative loans' -

The devastating conflict that erupted in November 2020 has killed untold numbers of civilians, displaced more than two million and left millions more in need of humanitarian aid.

Since the peace agreement was signed in the South African capital Pretoria, there has been a limited resumption of aid deliveries to Tigray, which has long faced dire shortages of food, fuel, cash and medicines.

Basic services such as communications, banking and electricity are slowly being restored to the stricken region of six million people, which was cut off from the outside world for much of the war.

In Washington, a senior US official said there has been "incremental but significant progress" in restoring humanitarian access to Tigray, but that only 1.5 million people have been reached out of an estimated 5.2 million in need.

Under the agreement between the once warring sides, foreign forces and those that are not part of the Ethiopian national army were to withdraw "concurrently" with the rebel disarmament.

While the TPLF announced it has begun disarming, local residents and aid workers say the Eritrean army and forces from the neighbouring region of Amhara remain in parts of Tigray and accuse them of murder, rape and looting.

Asked why the ministers left Tigray off their itinerary, Baerbock left the door open to a visit in the future.

"This is for us the beginning of a reengagement, and that also means visiting other places in the future -- including places where the question of accountability plays such a big role," she said.

The Horn of Africa, and Ethiopia in particular, are among the EU's priorities as Beijing seeks to boost its influence in the region -- as illustrated by new Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang's visit to Addis Ababa earlier this week.

Qin, who was appointed in December, is on a week-long tour of Africa, with Gabon, Angola, Benin and Egypt also on the itinerary.

In Ethiopia on Wednesday, he said: "Africa should be a platform for international cooperation, not an arena for competition between major countries."

While not naming China, Baerbock issued a veiled warning over Beijing's overtures.

"We want to cooperate fairly, transparently with clear rules, with fair rules in our mutual interest without manipulative loans," she said.

Beijing has been accused of leaving developing nations heavily indebted with loans it offered for infrastructure development.

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