Sudan braces for up to 200,000 fleeing Ethiopia

By CARA ANNA and SAMY MAGDY, Associated Press, 11/11/2020

Sudan braces
NAIROBI, Kenya — Up to 200,000 refugees could pour into Sudan while fleeing the deadly conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, officials said Wednesday, while the first details are emerging of largely cut-off civilians under growing strain. Already more than 7,000 people have crossed the border, including some wounded in the fighting, and the flow is growing quickly.

“The numbers are increasing rapidly. There are lots of children and women,” Al-Sir Khalid, the head of the refugee agency in Sudan’s Kassala province, told The Associated Press. “They are arriving very tired and exhausted. They are hungry and thirsty.”

Authorities are overwhelmed and the situation is deteriorating rapidly, he said.

Inside the Tigray region, long lines have appeared outside bread shops, and supply-laden trucks are stranded at its borders, the United Nations humanitarian chief in the country told the AP.

“We want to have humanitarian access as soon as possible,” Sajjad Mohammad Sajid said. “Fuel and food are needed urgently.” Up to 2 million people in Tigray have a “very, very difficult time,” he said, including hundreds of thousands of displaced people.

Fuel is already being rationed in the Tigray region, and the U.N. refugee agency said it and partners “will struggle to continue running their operations in the next two weeks.”

Communications remain almost completely severed with the Tigray region a week after Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced a military offensive in response to an alleged attack by regional forces. He insists there will be no negotiations with a regional government he considers illegal until its ruling “clique” is arrested and its well-stocked arsenal is destroyed.

Reports grew of the targeting of ethnic Tigrayans across Ethiopia, the Tigray Communication Affairs Bureau said in a Facebook post. Abiy has warned against ethnic profiling, but observers are alarmed by the development in a country already plagued by bouts of deadly ethnic violence.

The administration of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, announced rallies in support of the federal government’s measures there and in other cities in the Oromia and Amhara regions Thursday, along with a blood drive for the Ethiopian army.

The European Union, the African Union and others have urged Abiy for an immediate de-escalation as the conflict threatens to destabilize the strategic but vulnerable Horn of Africa region. Ethiopia’s state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate reported that the top U.S. diplomat for Africa, Tibor Nagy, spoke with Ethiopia’s foreign minister and stressed that peace in Ethiopia is “indispensable” for the region.

The standoff leaves nearly 900 aid workers in the Tigray region from the U.N. and other groups struggling to contact the outside world with pleas for help. “Nine U.N. agencies, almost 20 NGOs, all depending on two offices” with the means to communicate, Sajid said.

In addition, more than 1,000 people of different nationalities are stuck in the region, he said. That includes tourists. Countries urgently seek their evacuation.

With airports in Tigray closed, roads blocked, internet service cut off and even banks no longer operating, it “makes our life very difficult in terms of ensuring almost 2 million people receive humanitarian assistance,” Sajid said.

There was no sign of a lull in the fighting that has included multiple airstrikes by federal forces and hundreds of people reported dead on each side.

“It looks like, unfortunately, this may not be something which can be resolved by any party in a week or two,” Sajid said. “It looks like it’s going to be a protracted conflict, which is a huge concern from the point of view of protection of civilians.”

Ethiopia’s federal government and Tigray’s regional government, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, blame each other for starting the conflict. Each regards the other as illegal. The TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s ruling coalition for years before Abiy came to office in 2018 but has since broken away while accusing the prime minister’s administration of targeting and marginalizing its officials.

Ethiopia’s air force chief, Maj. Gen. Yilma Merdasa, asserted to reporters that forces had destroyed weapons depots, gas stations and other targets with “supreme control of the skies.” He said the airstrikes would continue.

Ethiopia’s army chief, Gen. Birhanu Jula, said the federal army based in Tigray had been encircled for five days and “denied food and water” before it broke out and launched a counteroffensive, the Ethiopian News Agency reported.

It remained difficult for diplomats, experts and others to verify either side’s claims about the fighting. And now some Ethiopian journalists are being arrested, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said, calling it a “worrying development.”

Experts have compared this to an inter-state conflict, with each side heavily armed and well-trained. The Tigray region has an estimated quarter-million various armed fighters, and of the Ethiopian military’s six mechanized divisions, four are based in Tigray. That’s a legacy of Ethiopia’s long border war with Eritrea, which made peace after Abiy came to power but remains at bitter odds with the TPLF.

The Tigray president on Tuesday accused Eritrea of attacking his region at the request of Ethiopia, saying that “the war has now progressed to a different stage,” he said.

Eritrean officials have not responded to requests for comment, but Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel tweeted that the country’s foreign minister and presidential adviser met in Khartoum with Sudan’s Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the head of the sovereign council, and Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and delivered a message from Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki.

There were no details of the message, but the officials discussed “current developments” in Ethiopia, the minister said.

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