The United Nations has said that ongoing fighting “in many parts” of Ethiopia’s Tigray is complicating efforts to deliver humanitarian aid despite a deal granting the UN access to territory under federal control.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced military operations in the northern region a month ago against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
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Last week, he declared victory, saying fighting was “completed” after federal forces entered the regional capital Mekelle. But the TPLF has promised to fight on.
“We have reports of fighting still going on in many parts of Tigray. This is concerning and it’s a complex situation for us,” Saviano Abreu, spokesman for the UN’s humanitarian coordination office, told the AFP news agency on Friday.
The conflict has claimed thousands of lives, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG) think-tank, and tens of thousands of refugees have streamed across the border into Sudan.
The UN has been warning of a possible humanitarian catastrophe within Tigray, though a communications blackout has made it difficult to assess conditions on the ground.
More than 45,000 have fled the conflict from Tigray into Sudan, though Sudanese forces on Thursday said Ethiopian forces blocked people from crossing the border at its busiest point.
Al Jazeera’s Malcolm Webb, reporting from Kenya’s capital Nairobi, said thousands of civilians were reported killed in the fighting.
“There have also been reports of massacres of civilians by militia on both sides. The leaders of both sides deny it,” he said.
“It is very difficult for anyone to verify any of these claims because there is almost no access to humanitarian workers, human rights workers and journalists.”
On Wednesday, the UN announced it had reached an agreement to administer aid in areas of Tigray that were government-controlled.
But as of Friday, security assessments were still being conducted and three UN officials told AFP that aid was not expected to arrive before next week.
“Basically, at the moment there is no access,” one official told AFP, arguing that the UN and the government “should have held off” on announcing the deal until preparations were further along.
“When you go public in the fashion they did, it creates expectations for people who think, ‘Access has been given, why is help not reaching us?'” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
The UN is continuing to negotiate “with all parties to the conflict” to ensure unfettered access, Abreu said.
“We have been granted this access, this agreement with the federal government. But we also have to have the same kind of agreement with all parties to the conflict to make sure we actually have unconditional free access to Tigray,” he said.
He stressed that some aid was still being administered.
“Hundreds of [humanitarian workers] are still on the ground doing all they can to provide assistance to people affected by the conflict and those who were already in need before the fighting,” he said.
Of particular concern is the fate of about 96,000 Eritrean refugees who before the conflict were living in camps in northern Tigray in areas reported to have seen heavy fighting.
The UN earlier this week issued a public appeal for the government to allow aid into the camps, which are believed to have run out of food.
A government official told AFP there was likely a “buffer” of food supplies that would last through the week.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) is eager to get food, medicine and other supplies to refugees and host communities as soon as possible, Ethiopia representative Ann Encontre told AFP on Friday.
It also wants to assess “very grim” reports on the security of the camps, which it has been unable to verify because of the communications blackout, Encontre said.
“We’ve heard of deaths of refugees, we’ve heard of some being forced into conscription. We’ve heard of abductions,” she said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported on Sunday that “some 1,000 Eritrean refugees have reportedly arrived in Mekelle from refugee camps around Shire” in northern Tigray.
This week several Eritrean refugees previously living in Tigray also turned up in Sudan, Encontre said.
Jan Egeland, the secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, told Al Jazeera from Sudan’s capital Khartoum: “We are very worried. We had 108 aid workers in Tigray [before the conflict erupted], still 90 on the ground but many of them had to flee.”
“This has been a war zone for some time now 96,000 Eritrean refugees came to Tigray because they felt it was safe there. Now we don’t know at all.”
“We hope that next week we will have access to Tigray for the first time in many months,” Egeland said.
“People who flee from Tigray tell about violence, widespread insecurity,” he said.
The TPLF dominated Ethiopian politics for nearly 30 years before anti-government protests swept Abiy to power in 2018.
The party then complained of being sidelined, and tensions escalated dramatically after Tigray went ahead with regional elections in September – defying a nationwide ban on polls because of the coronavirus pandemic – and sought to brand Abiy an illegitimate leader.
Tigrayan head Debretsion Gebremichael has promised to continue fighting as long as federal “invaders” are on Tigrayan soil.