Ethiopia and the United Nations reached an agreement on Wednesday to channel desperately needed humanitarian aid to a northern region where a month of war has killed, wounded and uprooted large numbers of people.
The pact, announced by UN officials, will allow aid workers access to government-controlled areas of Tigray, where federal troops have been battling the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and captured the regional capital.
The war is believed to have killed thousands, sent 45,000 refugees into Sudan, displaced many more within Tigray, and worsened suffering in a region where 600,000 people were already dependent on food aid even before the flare-up from Nov. 4.
Aid agencies had sounded the alarm about a growing humanitarian crisis and been pressing for access, after hundreds of foreign workers were forced to evacuate.
Food is thought to be running out for 96,000 Eritrean refugees in Tigray, while the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said at the weekend that medics in the local capital Mekelle were short of painkillers, gloves and bodybags.
“The UN and the Federal Government of Ethiopia have signed an agreement to ensure that humanitarians will have unimpeded, sustained and secure access for humanitarian personnel and services to areas under the control of the Federal Government in the Tigray Region,” the UN humanitarian coordination agency OCHA said in a statement to Reuters.
There was no immediate confirmation from the government.
Having declared victory in Tigray after the fall of Mekelle at the weekend, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed shifted focus on Wednesday, meeting political parties to plan next year’s election.
His government postponed the parliamentary vote this year due to COVID-19, but Tigray went ahead anyway and overwhelmingly re-elected the TPLF, a former guerrilla movement-turned-political party.
That defiance was one reason for the federal government’s military offensive against TPLF leaders.
The conflict may jeopardize political reforms and opening since Abiy took office in 2018.
Africa’s youngest leader at 44 and the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner for a pact with Eritrea, Abiy talked throughout the morning with political parties, civil society groups and election officials about the mid-2021 vote, his office said.
He took Ethiopia’s top job after nearly three decades of a TPLF-led national government, which had become increasingly repressive, jailing opponents and banning opposition parties.
Abiy removed Tigrayans from government and security posts, saying they were over-represented for an ethnic group accounting for just 6 percent of Ethiopia’s population. The military went in when a federal army base was ambushed in Tigray.
Addid Ababa blast
The TPLF casts their former military comrade and partner in government as bent on dominating them to increase his personal grip over the vast nation of 115 million people, which is split into 10 federations run by different ethnic groups.
It accuses Abiy of “invading” Tigray, where federal troops captured the regional capital Mekelle at the weekend, sending TPLF leaders fleeing for the hills.
Abiy, who hails from the larger Oromo and Amharic ethic groups, calls the Tigrayan leaders criminals opposing national unity and plotting attacks in Addis Ababa and elsewhere.
Federal police blamed the TPLF, without offering proof, for a small blast in the capital on Wednesday that injured an officer lightly. There was no immediate response from the TPLF.
The government was flying state media to Mekelle on Wednesday, witnesses said. With communications largely down, there has been little verifiable information from the highland city of 500,000 people since it fell on Saturday.
TPLF leaders say they are continuing to fight from surrounding mountainous areas.
“Wars are not like taps that you turn on and then turn off. This is going to be a very long, drawn-out process,” Horn of Africa expert Rashid Abdi told an online forum.