Jason Burke Africa correspondent, Thu 3 Jun 2021
UN says pause in fight against rebels would enable aid to reach province where 90% of people risk starvation
(The Guardian) — The Ethiopian government has defiantly brushed aside international calls for a ceasefire in the northern province of Tigray, saying its forces are close to “finalising operations” and will soon eliminate all armed opposition.
In recent days the US, United Nations, UK and many European states have called for a pause in hostilities to allow humanitarian organisations to reach millions of people who observers say 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. The UN said earlier this week that more than 90% of people in Tigray need emergency food aid.
Officials in Addis Ababa did not mention the calls for a ceasefire in a lengthy press briefing on Thursday and instead said that the government’s “law enforcement mission” was close to ending.
“Counter insurgency operations by the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) are now concentrated only in two areas where the outlawed operatives are active and this phase shall soon be finalised as well …. The outlawed group is occasionally undertaking attacks outside of these areas to give the impression of control and that the region is completely unstable,” Billene Seyoum, the government spokesperson, told reporters.
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 ENDF, 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.
Seyoum accused Ethiopia’s critics of bad faith, saying: “Ethiopia is witnessing an orchestrated attack that is condescending in nature; often patronising in tone; belligerent in approach and destructive in outcome. It is disingenuous to hijack the suffering of ordinary citizens for other goals … The government categorically rejects accusations of decimation of a people as a policy.”
Internal NGO assessments seen by the Guardian described the widespread destruction of agricultural equipment, seed stocks and infrastructure in Tigray as well as various deliberate attempts by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops to delay convoys. There are also reports of the theft of food and other essential materials by troops.
Internal UK government documents obtained by the Guardian described millions of people “on the brink”. One report described “communities denied access to humanitarian assistance, relief operations hindered, essential services destroyed and looted, widespread war crimes and what seemed to be systematic efforts to destroy livelihoods.”
Humanitarian officials have blamed troops from neighbouring Eritrea brought in to reinforce Ethiopian forces for many of the worst abuses.
In April the Guardian reported that almost 2,000 people had been killed in more than 150 massacres in Tigray, according to researchers. The oldest victims were in their 90s and the youngest were infants.
Seyyoum said Ethiopian military police and prosecutors had focused efforts particularly on cases of killing civilians and sexual violence “perpetrated by members of the ENDF”, which she blamed on “bad apples who violated their rules of engagement”. A total of 53 soldiers face trial on charges relating to killing civilians in a situation where there was no military necessity or rape.
The US has already imposed some sanctions and signalled further restrictions on economic and security assistance to Ethiopia.
“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,” the US president said in a statement.
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 the country’s sovereignty.