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As rebels advance, Ethiopia's government leaves room for negotiations

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have some explanation today of the Ethiopian government's point of view. It comes from a government spokesperson amid a civil war where the government has sealed off the state of Tigray. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: I spent most of my interview with Billene Seyoum, a spokeswoman for Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, asking about the humanitarian situation. The U.N. says that in regions held by the Tigray People's Liberation Front, the TPLF, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians are living in famine conditions, and some are already dying of hunger. The Ethiopian government disputes that assessment. And Billene says the government believes that aid is being used by rebel fighters instead of civilians.

What you're talking about is diversion, right? It happens in every conflict. But governments usually make a decision that even if it makes a war harder, even if it makes a fight harder, innocent civilians deserve some mercy. I mean, why isn't your government making the same calculation?

BILLENE SEYOUM: 'Cause, you know, the Tigray region right now, there is no presence by the National Defense Forces. So the onus of responsibility of ensuring that assistance reaches those vulnerable communities is on those that claim to be administering the region, which is TPLF.

PERALTA: But trucks can't get through your forces, though.

SEYOUM: There are trucks that are going in.

PERALTA: I mean, 10%, the U.N. says...

SEYOUM: No, that's not true.

PERALTA: ...Right? Ten percent of what they need.

SEYOUM: That's not true. If TPLF was really, truly about humanitarian assistance reaching the vulnerable sections of society within the Tigray region, then it would have facilitated that because, No. 1, you respond to the unilateral cease-fire, and you enable trucks to go in. But what has been happening is the minute the government enacted the unilateral cease-fire, what you saw TPLF doing is going to attack.

PERALTA: Prime Minister Abiy has been absolutist with his rhetoric. He says this war ends when the TPLF, which he has called a cancer, is destroyed. But Billene's rhetoric was softer. She says now that elections are out of the way, there is room to talk to a group she calls terrorists.

SEYOUM: So I'm not entirely sure there are examples of - successful examples of any country talking with terrorists and coming out in an amicable way. Nevertheless, we've given voice to the opportunity for national dialogue to take place.

PERALTA: After we spoke, the rebels captured two key cities, and the prime minister called on everyone to join the war effort.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Cape Town, South Africa.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHELIAN'S "INTRO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.