Ethiopia gives UN ‘unconditional’ access to Tigray

Published December 3, 2020
Ethiopian refugees who fled the Tigray conflict talk to each other at Village Eight transit centre near the Ethiopian border in Gedaref on Dec 2. — AFP
Ethiopian refugees who fled the Tigray conflict talk to each other at Village Eight transit centre near the Ethiopian border in Gedaref on Dec 2. — AFP

ADDIS ABABA: Ethiopia has granted the United Nations access to deliver aid to the northern region of Tigray, following weeks of lobbying amid military operations there, according to an agreement on Wednesday.

The agreement, signed by Ethiopia’s peace minister, comes four weeks after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent in troops and warplanes in a campaign targeting leaders of the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Thousands have died in subsequent fighting, according to the International Crisis Group, while tens of thousands have fled into neighbouring Sudan.

The UN has been warning of a possible humanitarian catastrophe within Tigray, though a communications blackout has made it difficult to assess conditions on the ground.

“We signed an agreement giving unconditional access for humanitarian assistance wherever people are in need” in Tigray, a senior UN official said on Wednesday.

A second senior UN official also said it applied to all of the region’s roughly six million population.

Two assessment missions launched on Wednesday and more are expected soon, the officials said.

The text of the agreement states that “the UN and humanitarian partners” can access “vulnerable populations in (government)-administered areas in Tigray and bordering areas of Amhara and Afar regions”.

Abiy declared victory on Saturday night, saying that military operations in Tigray were “completed” — but the TPLF has vowed to fight on.

Senior Tigrayan official Wondimu Asamnew claimed on Wednesday that federal forces were “encountering low-scale warfare all over Tigray” and that pro-TPLF fighters would launch a “full-scale offensive... in the near future”.

Wondimu also said in a statement that the TPLF had carried out a “strategic retreat” without sustaining heavy losses.

It is unclear if the government has control over the entire region, raising questions about whether the UN will actually have full access.

A spokeswoman for Abiy’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

Before the fighting began, around 600,000 people living in Tigray depended on food handouts, among them 96,000 Eritrean refugees. The agreement notes that the region was also home to 42,000 malnourished women and children as well as 100,000 internally displaced people.

Food, fuel and cash are in short supply, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, while the International Committee of the Red Cross says basic medical equipment is lacking.

On Tuesday the UN refugee agency warned that Eritrean refugees in Tigray were believed to have run out of food, saying concerns for their welfare were “growing by the hour”. Meanwhile communications are returning to parts of Tigray.

Ethio Telecom, the country’s monopoly telecommunications provider, said Wednesday that services had partially resumed in cities including Humera, Dansha, Mai-Kadra and Mai-Tsebri.

It said services had fully resumed in the southern Tigray town of Alamata, and that officials were “working to restore telecom services in all areas of the region”.

Abiy intends to establish a caretaker administration in Tigray headed by Mulu Nega, formerly a senior official in Ethiopia’s higher education ministry.

Published in Dawn, December 3rd, 2020

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