Families embraced and wept in emotional reunions Wednesday after the first commercial flight in 18 months between Ethiopia’s capital city and the war-torn Tigray region to the north.
The return of flights between Addis Ababa and Tigray’s capital Mekele follows a ceasefire reached between government and rebel forces last month and the gradual reopening of the stricken region.
Ethiopian Airlines, the biggest carrier in Africa, announced this week it would lift its suspension on flights to Tigray with the first charter to the region since June 2021.
On Wednesday, passengers arriving from Mekele were greeted by relatives at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa with long embraces, flowers and tears.
Fana Broadcasting Corporate, a state-affiliated channel, said the flight to Mekele departed around lunchtime. The government’s Ethiopian News Agency broadcast images of passengers aboard the plane.
Getachew Reda, a spokesman for Tigray’s regional government, said on Twitter that an Ethiopian Airlines passenger jet had landed at Mekele’s airport.
Tigrai TV, a rebel-affiliated network, aired footage of passengers dropping to their knees and kissing the tarmac upon arrival in Mekele.
Kindeya Gebrehiwot, another Tigrayan official, hailed it as a “milestone” and said more services would soon return to the war-weary region.
A high-level government delegation visited Tigray this week for the first time since the signing of the peace deal in November to end two years of bloodshed in Africa’s second-most populous country.
Estimates of casualties vary widely, with the United States saying that as many as half a million people have died, while the European Union says more than 100,000 people may have been killed.
– Disarmament –
Aid has started trickling back into Tigray since the truce was signed, going some way to alleviating severe shortages of food, fuel, cash and drugs.
Mekele has been reconnected to the national grid, and the country’s biggest bank says financial services have resumed in some towns.
On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said the head of Ethio Telecom, the state provider, had announced the restoration of telecom services in Mekele.
Services had been restored to 27 towns across Tigray and nearly 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) of fibre optic cable repaired, spokeswoman Billene Seyoum said on Twitter.
But the wider region of six million is still largely without electricity, phone lines or internet services, and aid agencies warn famine stalks Tigray.
The peace deal was to pave the way for the resumption of critical services in return for the disarmament of rebel fighters in Tigray.
Abiy’s security adviser Redwan Hussein said Tuesday that companies had been instructed to expedite service delivery while rebels were “handing over… heavy weapons” as Mekele prepared to return to government control.
Pro-government forces — namely troops from neighbouring Eritrea, and militias from the Ethiopian region of Amhara — remain in Tigray, despite the peace deal requiring the withdrawal of outside fighters.
The war began in November 2020 when Abiy sent troops into Tigray after he accused the region’s dissident rulers of orchestrating attacks on army bases.
© Agence France-Presse