ADDIS ABABA/NAIROBI (Reuters) – Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region is too volatile for aid to reach hundreds of thousands of civilians in need, humanitarian workers said on Sunday, amid reports of persistent fighting, looting and lawlessness.
Aid agencies have warned of a lack of food, medication and body bags in Tigray, where 600,000 people were already receiving food aid before a month of fighting began between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and a rebellious regional force.
Abiy declared victory over the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) after federal troops captured the regional capital Mekelle eight days ago, saying not a single civilian had been killed in the offensive.
However, a doctor reached in the city on Sunday told Reuters that at least 27 people – including a 4-year-old, a 78-year-old and a family of four – had died in the offensive. Two others were killed and four seriously wounded when residents blocked roads to protest looting by government forces in Mekelle, the doctor said.
Medical services in the city were at breaking point, he said.
“No light, no fuel for back up generator, no gloves, no anti-pain (medication), no antibiotics, no meals for patients and staff, no bank access – even our ambulance was taken by the soldiers,” the doctor said in a text message, asking that he and his hospital not be named for fear of reprisals.
Government officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Claims by all sides have been difficult to verify because most communications are down, and the government has tightly controlled media and humanitarian access since the conflict began on Nov. 4.
REPORTS OF CLASHES
Abiy’s rapid declaration of victory came as his government sought to soothe concerns at home and abroad that the conflict could destabilise Africa’s second most populous country and the wider Horn of Africa region. Thousands of people are believed to have been killed and around 46,000 have fled to Ethiopia’s western neighbour, Sudan.
The TPLF said it had pulled out of Mekelle to avoid destroying the city but has vowed to keep fighting.
Sporadic clashes persist in areas outside the city, according to residents, diplomats and the TPLF.
On Friday, residents also reported looting and protests within Mekelle.
Government officials have declined to comment on what they describe as unverified accounts of continued conflict. However, an emergency taskforce on Tigray said federal forces “are not looting their own people.”
“Considering the initial security gap until the provisional administration [was] set up, there were indications of individuals engaged in looting using the transition as a cover,” the taskforce said in a statement to Reuters on Sunday.
“Some of the criminal group’s foot soldiers are also hiding in Mekelle,” the statement continued, referring to the TPLF.
CIVILIANS IN NEED
Ethiopia and the United Nations reached an agreement last week to allow desperately needed relief into government-controlled areas of Tigray.
However, two senior aid officials told Reuters on Sunday that looting and lawlessness meant the region was still too volatile to dispatch convoys. Some U.N. staff in Mekelle have faced harassment from security forces, they said.
Families turning up at an aid agency office in the central town of Shire had to be turned away because there was nothing to give them, the two officials said.
“The shortage of basic commodities including food, water fuel, cash, is affecting everyone, including humanitarians,” Saviano Abreu, the regional head for the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told Reuters.
The TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s government for nearly three decades, until Abiy took power in 2018 and speeded up democratic reforms.
The party accuses Abiy of seeking to centralise power at the expense of Ethiopia’s 10 regions and says Tigrayan officials were unfairly targeted in a crackdown on corruption and rights abuses.
Tensions escalated when Tigray held a regional election in September in defiance of the government, which postponed voting nationwide due to COVID-19.
The government rejects the TPLF’s accusations and has accused TPLF leaders of treason for attacking federal forces stationed in Tigray.
(Reporting by Addis Ababa Newsroom; Additional reporting by Nazanine Moshiri and Duncan Miriri in Nairobi; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Katharine Houreld and Alexandra Zavis. Editing by Jane Merriman)