Sexual violence is being used as a weapon of war in Ethiopia's Tigray region, where girls as young as 8 are being targeted and some women have reported being gang-raped over several days, U.N. aid chief Mark Lowcock said on Thursday.
He told the U.N. Security Council that the humanitarian crisis in Tigray had deteriorated over the past month and the United Nations had not seen any proof that Eritrean soldiers - accused of massacres and killings - have withdrawn.
"To be very clear: the conflict is not over and things are not improving," Lowcock said, according to his notes for the closed virtual briefing of the 15-member council on Thursday.
He said humanitarian access remained a "huge problem" and that he had received a report earlier on Thursday that 150 people had died from hunger.
"This should alarm us all. It is a sign of what lies ahead if more action is not taken. Starvation as a weapon of war is a violation," Lowcock said.
Dr. Fasika Amdeselassie, the top public health official for the government-appointed interim administration in Tigray, told Reuters that at least 829 cases of sexual assault had been reported at five hospitals since the conflict began.
"There is no doubt that sexual violence is being used in this conflict as a weapon of war," Lowcock said, adding the majority of rapes were committed by men in uniform, with accusations made against all the warring parties.
"Nearly a quarter of reports received by one agency involve gang rape, with multiple men assaulting the victim; in some cases, women have been repeatedly raped over a period of days. Girls as young as eight are being targeted," Lowcock said.
Since November, fighting between federal government troops and Tigray's former ruling party has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes in the mountainous region of about 5 million. The Eritreans have been helping the central government troops.
Eritrea has repeatedly denied its troops are in Tigray. But Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has acknowledged their presence.
The United Nations and the United States have demanded that Eritrean troops withdraw from Tigray.
"Neither the U.N. nor any of the humanitarian agencies we work with have seen proof of Eritrean withdrawal," Lowcock said.
Ethiopia's U.N. ambassador, Taye Atskeselassie Amde, told Reuters the government was investigating all rights violations. He accused Lowcock of "behaving not like a humanitarian but a nemesis determined to exact some kind of retribution."
"Human rights violations are too serious and grave to be subjected to speculations. It is unfortunate the head of OCHA (the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) resorted to such an act before the U.N. Security Council," he said, adding that "there is no gap in humanitarian access."
Eritrea's U.N. mission in New York did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Lowcock's remarks. Last month, Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel said that sexual violence and rape "are an abomination to Eritrean society" and should be harshly punished if they occurred.