Ethiopian Airlines makes first flight to Tigray in 18 months

Families hugged and cried in emotional reunions on Wednesday after the first commercial flight in 18 months between the Ethiopian capital and the war-torn Tigray region in the north.

The return of flights between Addis Ababa and Mekele, the capital of Tigray, follows a ceasefire reached between the government and rebel forces last month and the gradual reopening of the affected region.

Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s largest airline, announced this week that it would lift the suspension of 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 hugs, flowers and tears.

Fana Broadcasting Corporate, a state-affiliated channel, said the flight to Mekele left at lunchtime. The government’s Ethiopian News Agency released images of passengers on board the plane.

Getachew Reda, spokesman for the Tigray regional government, said on Twitter that an Ethiopian Airlines passenger plane had landed at Mekele airport.

Tigrai TV, a rebel-affiliated channel, broadcast images of passengers falling to their knees and kissing the asphalt upon arrival in Mekele.

Kindeya Gebrehiwot, another Tigraian 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.

Casualty estimates vary widely, with the United States saying up to half a million people have died, while the European Union says more than 100,000 people may have been killed.

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Aid has started to flow 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 telecommunications services in Mekele.

Services had been restored in 27 towns in Tigray and nearly 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) of fiber 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 are warning that famine is looming in Tigray.

The peace deal was supposed to pave the way for the resumption of critical services in exchange for the disarmament of rebel fighters in Tigray.

Abiy’s security adviser, Redwan Hussein, said on Tuesday that the companies had been instructed to speed up service delivery as rebels “delivered heavy weapons” as Mekele prepared to return to government control.

Pro-government forces, namely troops from neighboring Eritrea and militias from Ethiopia’s Amhara region, remain in Tigray, despite the peace agreement calling for the withdrawal of external fighters.

The war began in November 2020 when Abiy sent troops into Tigray after accusing the region’s dissident rulers of orchestrating attacks on army bases.

READ ALSO: Timeline: The conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray

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