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U.S. envoys fly in to push for Ethiopia ceasefire amid hopes of thaw

Credit: REUTERS/EVELYN HOCKSTEIN

Two top U.S. diplomats were due to arrive in Ethiopia late on Thursday, a U.S. official said, to push for a ceasefire after tentative signs of a thaw in relations between warring parties.

NAIROBI, Jan 20 (Reuters) - Two top U.S. diplomatswere due to arrive in Ethiopia late on Thursday, a U.S. official said, to push for a ceasefire after tentative signs of a thaw in relations between warring parties.

The first trip there by Washington's newly appointed Horn of Africa envoy will build on progress made during last week's phone call between U.S. President Joe Biden and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the U.S. State Department has said.

Abiy's spokeswoman and spokesmen for the foreign ministry and government did not respond to requests for comment on the visit by the U.S. envoy, David Satterfield, and Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee.

The 14-month-old conflict pitting the federal government against forces from the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and its allies has displaced millions, triggered a famine and threatened to tear apart Africa's second most populous nation.

But U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Wednesday he had seen "a demonstrable effort to make peace".

Possible early signs of a thaw came on Jan. 7, when the government released a number of imprisoned political leaders and a few of the thousands of Tigrayans detained under a six-month state of emergency. The government said only those suspected of TPLF links were detained.

After that, freed prisoners Bekele Gerba, a senior leader of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress party, and Jawar Mohammed, founder of the Oromiya Media Network, issued a statement, urging "room for negotiation talks to bring about peaceful solutions."

Six Tigrayan leaders were also freed, including former Tigray president Abay Weldu and TPLF founder Sebhat Nega. A TPLF spokesman has not been reachable for more than a month.

The U.S. State Department said last week the two envoys "will encourage government officials to seize the current opening for peace by ending the air strikes and other hostilities."

TPLF forces now control their mountainous northern region of Tigray but are surrounded by hostile forces. Sporadic fighting punctuates an uneasy stalemate.

Around 90% of Tigray depends on food aid but none has entered since Dec. 14, the United Nations says. At least 100 trucks of aid per day are needed.

The government's release of TPLF figures angered some leaders in Amhara region, which has a border dispute with Tigray and where support for the war is strong, especially after Tigrayan forces invaded Amhara earlier this year.

The opposition party the National Movement of Amhara called the releases “a historical mistake.”

(Reporting by Nairobi newsroom and Daphne Psaledakis in Washington; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

((Giulia.Paravicini@thomsonreuters.com; +254 20 499 1232; Reuters Messaging: giulia.paravicini.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))

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