Ethiopia government denies war impeding aid, agencies report staff deaths
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Ethiopia’s government on Friday denied that the war in its northern Tigray region was preventing aid reaching civilians, as two foreign aid agencies confirmed some staff had been killed there and urged all sides to do more to protect non-combatants.
Five weeks of war between Ethiopian federal forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is thought to have killed thousands and has sent more than 950,000 people fleeing, according to the United Nations, about 50,000 of them to Sudan.
Since the army captured Tigray’s regional capital Mekelle nearly two weeks ago and declared victory, the Ethiopian government has portrayed life in Tigray as returning to normal. But TPLF leaders say they are fighting back on various fronts
Accounts by all sides are impossible to verify because most phone and internet connections to the region have been down since the conflict began and the government strictly controls access. Journalists may not leave the capital, Addis Ababa, without a permit.
Aid agencies meanwhile say blocked access, bureaucratic delays and violence against staff are hampering aid deliveries to a region that is home to more than five million people, of whom 600,000 required food aid before war broke out.
But a statement from the prime minister’s office said that some aid had already been sent and that there were no delays due to fighting.
“Suggestions that humanitarian assistance is impeded due to active military combat … within the Tigray region is untrue and undermines … work to stablise the region,” the statement from the Prime Minister’s office said. “Sporadic gunfire exchanged with the retreating remnants of the militia … need not be misconstrued as active conflict.”
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) and the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) published statements on Friday regretting the killings of their staff.
The IRC said one staff member was killed in Hitsats camp, which housed Eritrean refugees, near the town of Shire, adding that because communications were down, they could not gather or confirm the details surrounding the death.
The DRC said three of its staff were killed in Tigray last month, giving no further details. They said that a lack of communications and insecurity meant they still hadn’t managed to reach their families with the news.
“We call on all parties to the conflict to agree to an immediate ceasefire and ensure civilians, including refugees and aid workers, are protected,” the IRC said.
In a move likely to intensify concerns about the risk of the conflict spreading, the U.S. government said it believes reports of Eritrean military involvement in Ethiopia’s conflict are credible, despite denials of their presence by both nations.
“We … view this as a grave development. We urge that any such troops be withdrawn immediately,” a department spokesperson told Reuters.
Ethiopian and Eritrean authorities did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but both nations have previously dismissed such allegations.
The United States sees Ethiopia as an ally in a volatile region, especially against al-Qaeda-linked Somali insurgents al-Shabaab. That may present a policy dilemma when it comes to public criticism.
Two U.S. senators this week called on their government to consider sanctions on any political or military personnel responsible for human rights violations in the war, after reports of civilians being targeted by all sides.
Ethiopia hosts the African Union, its security services work with Western allies, and its troops serve in peacekeeping missions in South Sudan and Somalia.
Abiy won a Nobel Peace Prize last year for making peace with Eritrea, after two decades of conflict with an increasingly authoritarian TPLF-dominated Ethiopian government. Both states now see the TPLF as an enemy. Eritrean troops on Ethiopian soil, if true, could inflame an already volatile situation in Tigray.
Eritrea’s Foreign Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed on Saturday called the reports “propaganda.” Ethiopia also denies them, although Abiy said last week some government troops retreated into Eritrea early in the conflict and were helped.