As rebels declare a retreat, what lies ahead for Ethiopia? Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed

With Tigrayan rebels announcing a retreat to their stronghold in northernmost Ethiopia last week, fresh hopes have emerged of a possible end to the 13-month war marked by allegations of massacres and mass rapes.

But as forces loyal to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed chalk up a string of military victories and dismiss the rebel announcement as a cover-up for battlefield losses, prospects for peace remain hazy.

Here is a look at where things stand and the challenges that lie ahead.

Why have the rebels declared a pullout?

Officially, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) says the pullout from the Afar and Amhara regions is intended to pave the way for a cessation of hostilities followed by peace talks.

But the retreat to Tigray marks a huge reversal for the TPLF, which last month dismissed government calls for it to withdraw from the two regions as “an absolute non-starter”.

“No army retreats of its own free will. Tigrayan forces were compelled to, and the federal government and its allies know that,” said Awet Weldemichael, a Horn of Africa security expert at Queen’s University in Canada.

What explains the government’s military success?

Air power has been the one area where the government has always enjoyed an advantage, even when the TPLF appeared to be gaining the upper hand and claiming territorial advances that brought it within 200 kilometres (124 miles) by road from the capital Addis Ababa.

Unlike the rebels, the federal forces have access to fighter jets and armed drones that have bombarded Tigray in recent months, with Ethiopia signing a military cooperation pledge with weapons exporter Turkey in August.

“Addis Ababa’s heavy deployment of deadly drones were crucial in disabling Tigrayan mechanised operations and vehicular mobility,” Awet told AFP.

He added that troops from Eritrea, which has backed Abiy against the TPLF, may have also played a key role.

“An army that had been falling back in disarray cannot suddenly become effective in mop-up operations that are necessary to physically push back the opposing army.

“That can only be done by the Eritrean military, although we do not have the smoking gun yet.”–AFP.

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