Rival sides offer conflicting accounts as 10-month conflict in northern Ethiopia drags on.
Hundreds of aid trucks have not returned from Ethiopia’s war-hit Tigray region, and their disappearance is “the primary impediment” to ramping up the humanitarian response, the United Nations has said.
The disclosure on Friday from the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) comes amid rising fears of starvation deaths in Tigray, where the UN has previously estimated that about 350,000 people faced famine-like conditions.
Since July 12, 445 contracted non-WFP trucks have entered Tigray, but only 38 have returned, WFP spokeswoman Gemma Snowdon said in a statement.
“At the moment this is the primary impediment to moving humanitarian aid into Tigray. We are unable to assemble convoys of significant size due to lack of trucks,” Snowdon said.
“We are continuing to work with transporters and local authorities in Tigray for trucks to be released.”
WFP has no information about where the trucks are or what they are being used for, Snowdon said.
Northern Ethiopia has been racked by violence since last November when President Abiy Ahmed, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, sent troops into Tigray, saying the move was in response to attacks on army camps by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
The TPLF, which dominated national politics until Abiy came to power in 2018, said federal forces and its allies launched a “coordinated attack” against it.
The 10-month war has killed thousands of people and forced more than two million to flee their homes. There have been myriad reports of massacres and atrocities, including rape and extrajudicial killings, and hundreds of thousands of people suffering famine.
In July, after the TPLF had recaptured the regional capital of Mekelle and seized back most of Tigray, its forces advanced into Afar and Amhara regions, marking an expansion of the conflict into previously untouched areas. Since then, the government estimates that about 450,000 people have fled fighting in those two regions.
According to the UN, Tigray remains under a “de facto blockade” and has warned of a “looming catastrophe” as fighting has dragged on and spread to neighbouring regions.
The Ethiopian authorities and Tigrayan rebels have blamed each other for obstructing humanitarian convoys trying to reach Tigray.
A government Twitter account on Thursday referred to “suspicions that TPLF [is] seizing trucks for own logistics”.
But TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda cited obstacles drivers faced while entering Tigray from the neighbouring Afar region, adding they have “nothing to do” with Tigrayan officials.
“Drivers of trucks that UN has commissioned complain about fuel availability, [security] concerns, harassment at checkpoints, being stranded at Afar for months, etc,” he said on Twitter.
A humanitarian official in Tigray, speaking to the AFP news agency on condition of anonymity, said many truck drivers were Tigrayan and had faced ethnically motivated harassment at checkpoints while heading into the region.