Jason Burke Africa correspondent, Wed 2 Jun 2021
War has disrupted humanitarian deliveries to region where millions of people are facing famine
Pressure is mounting on Ethiopia to declare a ceasefire in the northern province of Tigray to allow humanitarian organisations to reach millions of people who face famine.
The war in Tigray has disrupted harvests and led to huge problems for the delivery of aid to communities, particularly in rural areas. More than 2 million are thought to have been displaced by the conflict.
The UK has called for “a cessation of hostilities by all conflict parties and unfettered humanitarian access so that aid can flow and famine can be averted”.
The US embassy in Addis Ababa tweeted on Wednesday: “We agree with the UK that the humanitarian situation in #Tigray is rapidly deteriorating. A break in the fighting NOW, coupled with unfettered humanitarian access, will immediately help avert the risk of famine.”
Many European countries backed the call. The Finnish foreign minister, Pekka Haavisto, said he had discussed the “alarming humanitarian situation in Tigray” with the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, and called for humanitarian workers to be protected and humanitarian access guaranteed.
Earlier this week, the UN said more than 90% of people in Tigray needed emergency food aid, as it appealed for $203m (£140m) to scale up its response.
The UN’s World Food Programme said it was alarmed at how the conflict had increased already high levels of hunger in Tigray. “A total of 5.2 million people, equivalent to 91% of Tigray’s population, need emergency food assistance due to the conflict,” the WFP spokesperson, Tomson Phiri, said in Geneva.
The conflict began in November when government forces moved to oust the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) from power in the province after it launched surprise attacks on key federal military bases.
Though the Ethiopian army, pro-government militia and troops sent by neighbouring Eritrea were initially victorious, the conflict has become a grinding insurgency marked by atrocities including many massacres of civilians and systematic sexual violence.
Internal NGO assessments seen by the Guardian describe widespread destruction of agricultural equipment, seed stocks and infrastructure as well as multiple attempts by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops to deliberately delay convoys. There are also reports of the theft of food and other essential materials. Fighting means many areas where the need is greatest are cut off.
The US has already imposed some sanctions and signalled further restrictions on economic and security assistance to Ethiopia.
Last week the US president called on violent actors in Tigray to declare and adhere to a ceasefire.
“Earlier this week, the UN office of humanitarian affairs warned that Ethiopia could experience its first famine since the 1980s because of this protracted conflict. All parties, in particular the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, must allow immediate, unimpeded humanitarian access to the region in order to prevent widespread famine,” Joe Biden said in a statement.
Ethiopian officials have rejected the calls so far, and on Sunday people packed a stadium in Addis Ababa for a pro-government rally, chanting against US sanctions and waving posters accusing foreign powers of undermining Ethiopia’s national sovereignty.