The United Nations and its aid partners have seen no proof of a declared withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Ethiopia’s Tigray region, according to the world body’s top humanitarian official, who also warned the situation in the embattled region has deteriorated.
The comments by Mark Lowcock during a closed-door UN Security Council meeting on Thursday came more than two weeks after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said Eritrea had agreed to withdraw the allied forces it had sent into the northern Ethiopian region during the conflict that broke out there in November 2020.
“Unfortunately, I must say that neither the UN nor any of the humanitarian agencies we work with have seen proof of Eritrean withdrawal,” the under-secretary general of humanitarian affairs told the council, according to a text of his speech seen by Al Jazeera.
After months of tension, Abiy sent government forces into Tigray on November 4 to detain and disarm leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the then-regional ruling party that for decades dominated Ethiopia’s politics.
The winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize said the move came in response to TPLF-orchestrated attacks on federal army camps. The TPLF said Abiy’s government and its longtime foe Eritrea launched a “coordinated attack” against it.
Abiy declared victory after federal forces entered the regional capital, Mekelle, on November 28 but fighting has continued and analysts warn of a prolonged deadlock in a conflict that is believed to have killed thousands of people and left more than five million people in need of aid.
“The humanitarian situation in Tigray has deteriorated,” said Lowcock, adding that the “vast majority” of the region of some six million people “is completely or partially inaccessible” for humanitarian agencies.
“The conflict is not over and things are not improving,” he continued, calling the “reports of systematic rape, gang rape and sexual violence … especially disturbing and alarmingly widespread”.
Civilians have been experiencing “targeted violence, mass killings and executions, and systematic sexual violence as a weapon of war”.
Thursday’s closed-door meeting was the latest in a number of similar sessions since the start of the conflict more than five months ago, but the Security Council has yet to release a statement.
“The Security Council has listened to these reports, it had closed-door meetings but it has been absolutely silent,” said Al Jazeera’s diplomatic editor James Bays, reporting from the UN headquarters in New York. “Security Council members have not managed to agree to a single statement on the situation.”
Asked by Al Jazeera what should be done to improve the situation in Tigray, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric called for an increase in humanitarian access as well as “real movement” on human rights investigations into the “horrific reports” of atrocities and a “real reconciliation within the different groups in Tigray”.
After months of denials, Abiy last month admitted publicly that Eritrean troops had entered Tigray. UN chief Antonio Guterres once said the prime minister had “guaranteed” Eritrean forces were not there.
This week, Amnesty International said Eritrean troops on Monday had opened fire on civilians in Tigray’s Adwa town, in an “unprovoked” attack that killed at least three people and wounded 19 others.
The rights group’s regional director, Sarah Jackson, described the shooting as “yet another unlawful attack by Eritrean troops on civilians in Tigray”.