Government forces withdraw as rebels retake Mekelle and reject unilateral ceasefire declared by the government.
Aid groups have renewed calls for unimpeded humanitarian access to reach hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people in Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region, days after the federal government in Addis Ababa declared a unilateral ceasefire in the eight-month conflict as rebel forces retook the regional capital, Mekelle.
The government in Addis Ababa described its “withdrawal” as a strategic move and said it was taken partly on humanitarian grounds, aimed at facilitating agricultural production in the mountainous region. It said the ceasefire announced on Monday would remain in place until the farming season concludes in September.
But Getachew Reda, a spokesman for Tigrayan forces, rejected the government’s ceasefire declaration as a “sick joke” and said they would not stop until they fully regain the region. Getachew further said the federal forces were forced out of Mekelle but were still fighting to recapture territory, adding that their Eritrean allies still control a “significant part” of Tigray.
Eritrea, whose troops have been accused of carrying out some of the worst abuses during the conflict, has not commented since the Ethiopian government’s announcement.
Electricity and telecommunications remain largely cut off across Tigray, making the work of humanitarian groups more challenging just as the region of some six million people faces the worst famine crisis globally in a decade.
To make matters worse, the International Rescue Committee said on Thursday a bridge over Tekeze River near the town of Shire in northern Tigray had been destroyed.
“This was one of the main supply routes into Tigray which means aid efforts will be even more severely hampered than before,” it warned.
We are devastated to hear the Tekeze Bridge—one of the main supply routes into Tigray, Ethiopia—has been destroyed. This means aid efforts will be even more severely hampered amid the ongoing conflict. The IRC continues to call for unfettered humanitarian access to the region.
— IRC – International Rescue Committee (@RESCUEorg) July 1, 2021
“The situation is very worrying and has been deteriorating in recent months,” Alyona Synenko, regional spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), told Al Jazeera on Thursday.
“We are looking at two million people displaced in the region and they need urgent humanitarian assistance,” Synenko said. “Access to food is a major concern. Safe drinking water and shelter are also lacking.”
The situation is direr in rural areas where humanitarian organisations have not been able to access because of the fragile security situation, according to ICRC.
“The reports we are receiving from rural areas are very concerning. Because of the security situation, farmers have not been able to plant crops and their stocks have been looted. They have no seeds or fertilisers,” Synenko added.
Many farmers in the region depend on seeds and subsidised fertilisers which they used to receive on credit from cooperative unions – but that has not been available since the conflict broke out.
Ethiopian soldiers backed by troops from neighbouring Eritrea and fighters from the Ethiopian region of Amhara, to the south of Tigray, have been battling the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) since November 2020 after Addis Ababa accused the region’s then-governing party of attacking federal military bases, an allegation rejected by TPLF officials.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, declared victory after the federal forces entered Mekelle on November 28. Fighting, however, continued, prompting warnings of a protracted conflict with devastating effects on civilians.
According to the United Nations, more than 350,000 people in Tigray are facing famine conditions due to “catastrophic” food shortages, with another five million needing immediate food aid.
On Thursday, the UN’s children agency, UNICEF, said children in the region “continue to suffer”.
“UNICEF supplies are ready, yet to deliver lifesaving water, nutrition, and health services to desperate families, we need urgent, safe and sustained access,” the agency said.
Abiy’s government has been under mounting international pressure to bring to an end the conflict, which is estimated to have killed thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people.
On Tuesday, the United States said it would take further actions against Ethiopia and Eritrea if hostilities did not end in Tigray.
In late May, Washington had slapped economic and security curbs on Ethiopia, including restrictions on a number of current or former Ethiopian and Eritrean government officials and members of the security forces, as well as Amhara forces and TPLF members – all believed to be “responsible for, or complicit in, undermining resolution of the crisis in Tigray”.
Robert Godec, acting assistant secretary of state for the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, said this week the US “will not stand by in the face of the horrors in Tigray”.
For his part, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he had spoken with Abiy on Tuesday, adding that he was hopeful of an “effective cessation” of hostilities in the region.
“It is essential that civilians are protected, humanitarian aid reaches the people in need and a political solution is found,” Guterres said.
On Thursday, the United Kingdom welcomed Ethiopia’s ceasefire declaration and called on all parties to the conflict to make a similar announcement.
“The violence must now stop and unfettered humanitarian access granted. Eritrean forces should also leave Tigray,” a spokesperson for the UK’s foreign and commonwealth office said, adding that it was “crucial that there is a political process for all parties to find a long-term resolution to the conflict in Tigray”.
It came a day after Ethiopian officials said federal troops could retake Mekelle within weeks if needed and warned the Tigrayan forces against “reorganising” in the areas the government troops withdrew from.
“To those who said they might reorganise, they won’t pass an inch,” Lieutenant General Bacha Debele told reporters. “If they try to provoke, our response will be huge and it will be more than the previous one.”
For Adem Kassie Abebe, programme officer at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, the departure of the Ethiopian federal forces “could actually worsen the gap in humanitarian provisions”.
“Most of the humanitarian provisions were actually coming from Ethiopian sources,” he told Al Jazeera’s Inside Story programme. “Work has to be done to ensure that there is an increase in humanitarian provisions as regards to the gap that has been created.”
Synenko, of the ICRC, echoed the call.
“The humanitarian situation will deteriorate drastically if nothing is done. We hope the security situation stabilises so we can reach and offer assistance to those communities most in need, especially in rural areas,” she said.
Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa