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U.N. and Ethiopia sign deal for ‘unimpeded’ aid access to embattled Tigray

Refugees carry their belongings in eastern Sudan including a mattress and blankets.
Refugees who fled the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region carry their belongings in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, on Tuesday.
(Nariman el-Mofty / Associated Press)

In a breakthrough a month after a deadly conflict cut off Ethiopia’s Tigray region from the world, the United Nations said Wednesday that it had signed a deal with the Ethiopian government to allow “unimpeded” humanitarian access, at least for areas under federal government control.

This should allow food, medicine and other aid into the embattled region of 6 million people, which has seen rising hunger during fighting between the federal and Tigray regional governments. Each regards the other as illegitimate, in a power struggle that has escalated in recent months. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared victory in the confrontation over the weekend.

For weeks, the U.N. and others have pleaded for access amid reports of supplies running desperately low for millions of people. A U.N. humanitarian spokesman, Saviano Abreu, said the first mission to carry out a needs assessment would begin Wednesday.

“We are of course working to make sure assistance will be provided in the whole region and for every single person who needs it,” he said. The U.N. and its partners are committed to engaging with “all parties to the conflict” to ensure that aid to Tigray and the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions is “strictly based on needs” and distributed according to the principles of humanity, impartiality, independence and neutrality.

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Ethiopia’s government did not immediately comment.

For weeks, aid-laden trucks have been blocked at Tigray’s borders, and the U.N. and other humanitarian groups were increasingly concerned about reaching the region as hunger grew and hospitals ran out of basic supplies such as gloves and body bags.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed left Ethiopians breathless in 2018 by making peace with enemy Eritrea. Now he’s girding the country for possible civil war.

“We literally have staff reaching out to us to say they have no food for their children,” one humanitarian worker said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

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More than 1 million people in Tigray are now thought to be displaced, including more than 45,000 who have fled into a remote area of neighboring Sudan. Humanitarian workers have struggled to feed them as they set up a crisis response from scratch.

Communications and transport links to Tigray remain almost completely severed, and the fugitive leader of the defiant regional government this week told the Associated Press that fighting continues despite Abiy’s declaration of victory.

It remains almost impossible to verify either side’s claims in a conflict that threatens to destabilize Ethiopia and the wider Horn of Africa region.

Ethiopia nears civil war, threatening the stability of one of the world’s most strategic regions. Here are key reasons for the international alarm.

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“It is critically important to get objective information as to what is going on,” the top U.S. diplomat for Africa, Tibor Nagy, told the BBC. “The active military phase is basically over. I’m not saying the fighting is over. So at this point, the humanitarian phase is the most important one.”

Nagy added that “now the danger is this evolving into a long-term insurgency.” He also disagreed with Ethiopia’s description of the conflict as a “law-enforcement operation” to arrest Tigray’s leaders, saying that “it was obviously a military operation.”

Both sides are heavily armed. The fighting has seen airstrikes, rocket attacks and tanks.

For weeks, the U.N. and others have been increasingly insistent on the need to reach some 600,000 people in Tigray who were dependent on food aid even before the conflict.

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Nearly 40,000 people have fled Ethiopia’s military offensive in the country’s Tigray region, where local officials defy the central government.

Now those needs have exploded, but Abiy — who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize — has resisted international pressure for dialogue and deescalation, saying that his government will not “negotiate our sovereignty.”

Amid the warring sides’ claims and counterclaims, one thing is clear: Civilians have suffered.

The U.N. says food has run out for the nearly 100,000 refugees from Eritrea whose camps close to Tigray’s border have been in the line of fire as the fighting swept through. Reports that some refugees have been killed or abducted, if true, “would be major violations of international norms,” the U.N. refugee chief said over the weekend in an urgent appeal to Abiy.

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With infrastructure damaged, the U.N. has said some people in Tigray are now drinking untreated water, increasing the risk of disease.

In northern Ethiopia’s largest hospital, in the Tigray capital of Mekele, staff had to suspend other activities to focus on treating the large number of wounded from the conflict, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

The ICRC, the rare organization to travel inside the Tigray region and its borderlands, has reported coming across abandoned communities and camps of displaced people.

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No one knows the true toll of the fighting. Human rights and humanitarian groups have reported several hundred people killed, including civilians, but it is feared the number is higher.

Inside Tigray, and among the majority-ethnic Tigrayan refugees in Sudan, people are exhausted.

“The world hasn’t seen anything like this year. I have never seen anything like this,” said one refugee who gave his name as Danyo, standing on the edge of a river that people were crossing Tuesday to seek safety.

“When Dr. Abiy came, we saw him as a good thing,” he said. “Our hopes were fulfilled, because his talk in the beginning was as sweet as honey. But now the honey has gone sour.”


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