New push for Tigray access as UN, US aid officials visit Ethiopia

Hundreds of thousands of people in war-battered region face the world’s worst famine crisis in 10 years.

Some 5.2 million people - more than 90 percent of Tigray's people - depend on outside assistance, according to the UN [File: Baz Ratner/Reuters]

The United Nations humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths and US aid head Samantha Power will hold talks in Ethiopia this week to push for urgent access into the conflict-hit Tigray region, where hundreds of thousands of people there face the world’s worst famine crisis in 10 years.

Griffiths arrived in Ethiopia on Thursday on his first trip since since becoming new UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs. Over six days, he will meet Ethiopian officials and travel to Tigray and the neighbouring region of Amhara, whose fighters control parts of Tigray.

“He looks forward to constructive discussions on scaling up the humanitarian response across the country,” UN spokeswoman Eri Kaneko told reporters. Griffiths will speak with civilians and also “witness firsthand the challenges that aid workers face”, she said.

Earlier this week, the head of the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) said the agency will “run out of food” in Tigray on Friday.

Some 170 trucks with food and other supplies were “stuck” in the neighbouring Afar region and “must be allowed to move NOW,” David Beasley tweeted on Tuesday, noting that 100 such trucks are needed per day in Tigray. “People are starving.”

Shortly after the WFP chief’s statement, Ethiopia’s government blamed the aid delivery problem on Tigray forces’ “provocations” in the Afar region, which the UN says has the only remaining road route into Tigray. But a WFP convoy trying to use that route was attacked on July 18 and insecurity remains a challenge.

Some 5.2 million people – more than 90 percent of Tigray’s people – depend on external assistance, according to the UN.

Separately, a statement by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) said Power, whose trip starts on Sunday, will meet officials in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, to “press for unimpeded humanitarian access to prevent famine in Tigray and meet urgent needs in other conflict-affected regions of the country”.

On Friday, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned than 100,000 children in Tigray could suffer from life-threatening severe acute malnutrition in the next 12 months, a 10-fold jump over average annual levels.

UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado, speaking after returning from Tigray, told a UN briefing in Geneva that pregnant and breastfeeding women were acutely malnourished.

“We need unfettered access into Tigray and across the region, in order to provide support children and women urgently need,” she said.

The United Nations needs satellite phones and other critical communications equipment for its aid operation in Tigray, UN spokesman Jens Laerke said, urging the Ethiopian government to grant permission.

Eritrean refugees protest

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, in November launched an offensive in Tigray, accusing the region’s then-ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) of attacking federal army camps. The TPLF, which dominated national politics for decades until Abiy came to power in 2018, said it was the target of a “coordinated attack” by federal forces and its longtime foe Eritrea.

The war took a stunning turn last month when the forces of the TPLF took back Mekelle, with rebels then launching a new offensive to capture other parts of the region.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has described some of the violence in Tigray as “ethnic cleansing” and repeatedly pressed Abiy by telephone, straining the usually warm US relationship with Ethiopia.

In another growing area of concern, the State Department on Wednesday urged armed groups in Tigray to stop going after refugees from neighbouring Eritrea – who have long crossed the border to flee their authoritarian government, which allied with Abiy in last year’s campaign.

On Thursday, hundreds of Eritrean refugees protested in Addis Ababa, calling on the UN’s refugee agency to relocate friends and family who they say are trapped in two refugee camps by fighting in Tigray.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies