Sudan braces for up to 200,000 fleeing Ethiopia fighting

No sign of a lull in fighting that has included multiple air raids by federal forces and hundreds of people reported dead on each side.

A member of the Tigray police at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Mekelle [File: Eduardo Soteras/AFP]

As many as 200,000 refugees could pour into Sudan while fleeing the deadly conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, officials say, as at least 6,000 people have already crossed the border.

Long lines have appeared outside bread shops in Tigray, and supply-laden trucks are stranded at its borders, the United Nations humanitarian chief in the country said.

“We want to have humanitarian access as soon as possible,” Sajjad Mohammad Sajid said. “Fuel and food are needed urgently.”

Up to two million people, including hundreds of thousands of displaced people, in Tigray are facing a “very, very difficult time”, he said late on Tuesday.

Hundreds have died in air raids and fighting since the conflict erupted a week ago. Fears are growing that Ethiopia, a nation of 110 million, could slide into a civil war.

Under growing pressure, at least 6,000 Ethiopian refugees have crossed the now-closed border into Sudan, the state-run SUNA news agency reported. The agency, citing unidentified officials, said more than 200,000 Ethiopians were expected to cross into Sudan in the coming days.

‘Brought to justice’

Communications with the Tigray region remain almost completely severed a week after Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced a military offensive in response to an alleged attack by regional forces.

He insisted there will be no negotiations with a regional government he considers illegal until its ruling “clique” is arrested and its well-stocked arsenal is destroyed.

The United Kingdom and the African Union have urged Abiy for an immediate de-escalation as the conflict threatens to destabilise the strategic but vulnerable Horn of Africa region.

Abiy is not listening to requests for mediation, diplomats and security officials in East Africa have said. “We won’t rest till this junta is brought to justice,” Abiy wrote on Twitter late on Tuesday.

The standoff leaves nearly 900 aid workers in the Tigray region from the UN and other groups struggling to contact the outside world with pleas for help.

“Nine UN agencies, almost 20 NGOs, all depending on two offices” with the means to communicate, Sajid said.

In addition, more than 1,000 people of different nationalities are stuck in the region, he said. That includes tourists. Countries urgently are seeking their evacuation.

‘Protracted conflict’

With airports in Tigray closed, roads blocked, internet service cut off and even banks no longer operating, it “makes our life very difficult in terms of ensuring almost two million people receive humanitarian assistance”, Sajid said.

There is no sign of a lull in the fighting that has included multiple air raids by federal forces and hundreds of people reported dead on each side.

“It looks like, unfortunately, this may not be something which can be resolved by any party in a week or two,” Sajid said. “It looks like it’s going to be a protracted conflict, which is a huge concern from the point of view of protection of civilians.”

Ethiopia’s federal government and Tigray’s regional government, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), blame each other for starting the conflict. Each regards the other as illegal. The TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s governing coalition for years before Abiy came to office in 2018 but has since broken away while accusing the prime minister’s administration of targeting and marginalising its officials.

It remains difficult for diplomats, experts and others to very either side’s claims about the fighting.

Experts have compared this with an inter-state conflict, with each side heavily armed and well-trained. The Tigray region has an estimated quarter-million various armed fighters, and of the Ethiopian military’s six mechanised divisions, four are based in Tigray. That is a legacy of Ethiopia’s long border war with Eritrea, which made peace after Abiy came to power but remains at bitter odds with the TPLF.

The Tigray president on Tuesday accused Eritrea of attacking his region at the request of Ethiopia, saying “the war has now progressed to a different stage”. Eritrea denied the accusation.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies