ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — Ethiopia’s federal government says the future of contested land in its northern Tigray region will be settled by a referendum, and hundreds of thousands of forcibly displaced people will be returned. Monday’s announcement came one year after a cease-fire ended a devastating civil war there.
The disputed status of western Tigray, a patch of fertile land bordering Sudan, was a key flashpoint in the two-year conflict between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, and the federal government.
Western Tigray belongs to Tigray under Ethiopia’s constitution. But it was occupied by forces from neighboring Amhara province, which claims the area as its own. Hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans were forcibly expelled, prompting accusations of ethnic cleansing.
In a statement to mark the anniversary of the cease-fire, the government said the displaced people would be returned and the federal military would assume responsibility for local security.
A referendum will then be held to reach “a final determination on the fate of these areas,” the statement said. It did not say when the referendum would be.
Ethiopia’s constitution says territorial disputes between regions can be settled based on “the wishes of peoples concerned” when officials fail to reach an agreement.
The TPLF in a statement published Friday said the cease-fire had not been fully implemented because large numbers of people are still displaced.
In late July, fighting erupted in Amhara over a plan to absorb regional paramilitary groups into the federal military and police, with local militias known as Fano briefly seizing control of some of the region’s towns.
Suggestions that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed might return western Tigray and other disputed land to Tigray helped fuel the violence, which has turned into a rumbling insurgency in the countryside.
At least 183 people were killed in the first month of the Amhara conflict, according to the United Nations. Ethiopia’s state-appointed human rights commission said last week that dozens of civilians had been killed in airstrikes and extrajudicial killings.
In one incident documented by the rights body, security forces killed 12 civilians, including several religious students, on Oct. 10 while searching a house in the Amhara town of Adet.
Ethiopia’s government has rejected the accusations and said it has restored law and order to the region.