By Maggie Fick
NAIROBI (Reuters) - The commander of rebel forces in Tigray on Tuesday called for a negotiated ceasefire with the Ethiopian government and a political solution to the conflict in the northern region, saying the government could not win the war.
Tsadkan Gebretensae, speaking a week after the withdrawal of government forces from the Tigrayan capital Mekelle, told Reuters: "After the defeat of Abiy's forces we are saying 'Let's have a negotiated ceasefire'."
"We are restraining ourselves for a realistic political solution to the whole problem. I would like the international community to understand this situation."
"But if there is no other choice, then the next choice will be: try to resolve it militarily," he said by satellite phone from an undisclosed location.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's spokesperson and the head of the government task force on Tigray did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Abiy's government has been battling the TPLF since early November, when it accused the then-governing party of Tigray of attacking military bases across the region. The TPLF has denied the charges.
Thousands of civilians and an unknown number of combatants have since been killed.
The fighting followed months of deteriorating relations. The TPLF accuses the government of discrimination against ethnic Tigrayans and attempts to centralise power. The government says it is cracking down on a TPLF "criminal clique".
International pressure is now building on both sides to end hostilities so that aid can reach hundreds of thousands of starving people.
The Ethiopian government declared a unilateral ceasefire last week after its troops pulled out of Mekelle in what it called a strategic withdrawal. The TPLF dismissed that truce as a joke and said it had driven the government out of the city.
On Sunday, the TPLF said it wanted a full withdrawal of troops from Eritrea and the neighbouring state of Amhara before it could engage in any talks with the government about a ceasefire.
It said it would accept a ceasefire in principle if there were guarantees of no further troop deployments but a series of other conditions would need to be met before any agreement could be formalised.
These included unfettered access for aid into the region, as well as the full provision of essential services such as electricity, telecommunications and healthcare.
In the interview, Tsadkan said the war would continue unless Abiy accepted military defeat in Tigray. He also accused the government of deliberately blocking aid to the region. Aid has not been to enter Tigray since Mekelle fell but the government denies it has prevented shipments.
He also said about 8,000 soldiers are currently prisoners of the TPLF. Ethiopian army spokesperson Colonel Getnet Adene said the number of prisoners of war cited by Tsadkan was exaggerated, and Reuters could not independently verify the figures.
Tsadkan, 67, was a leader in the TPLF when it toppled the Communist Derg regime in 1991. He served as army chief of staff for a decade when the TPLF dominated the government, a period lasting nearly three decades until Abiy came to power in 2018.
On Monday, Abiy told parliament in Addis Ababa that a million young Ethiopians would volunteer to fight in Tigray if required, but also suggested he wanted a peaceful solution.
"We can continue the conflict, but the result will be to kill, to waste dollars from both sides, but we can't win through this," Abiy said.
(Reporting by Maggie Fick; Editing by Angus MacSwan)