An accelerating wave of Ethiopian air strikes in Tigray region has killed a reported 108 civilians, jeopardizing fragile peace talks and further damaging an emergency aid effort that is already on the verge of ending because of blocked supplies.
Western leaders, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, have been pushing for humanitarian aid and peace negotiations to end the 14-month-old war in Northern Ethiopia, which has killed tens of thousands of people. But the latest attacks and the rising civilian death toll have angered Tigrayan leaders and hampered the aid effort.
The United Nations human rights office said in a statement Friday that the air strikes could constitute a war crime if the perpetrators did not verify that the targets were military objectives.
“We are alarmed by the multiple, deeply disturbing reports we continue to receive of civilian casualties and destruction of civilian objects resulting from air strikes in Ethiopia’s Tigray region,” said Liz Throssell, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
She cited reports that the attacks have killed 108 civilians and injured 75 in the past two weeks. The air strikes reportedly hit a refugee camp, a training institute, a flour mill, an airport, a private minibus and a camp for internally displaced people.
The deadliest was last Friday at the Dedebit camp for displaced people, killing at least 59 and injuring dozens of others. Another attack, on Monday, caused devastation at a mill where farmers had gathered to grind their grains into flour. The air strikes are believed to have been inflicted by Turkish, Chinese and Iranian drones imported by Ethiopia’s military in recent months.
Fisseha Tekle, an Ethiopia researcher for Amnesty International, told The Globe and Mail that the warring parties must “stop indiscriminate attacks” that hit civilians and civilian infrastructure. He called on the Ethiopian government to allow access to the affected areas for international and independent investigations.
Last week, as Ethiopia celebrated Orthodox Christmas, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced the release of several imprisoned opposition leaders, including some from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). He called for an “all-inclusive national dialogue” and a peaceful solution to Ethiopia’s problems.
But the air strikes have undermined the prospects for peace. A spokesman for the TPLF, Getachew Reda, tweeted last week that the Prime Minister’s rhetoric about peace was contradicted by “his daily routine of denying medication to helpless children and sending drones targeting civilians.”
This week, Mr. Getachew noted that a drone strike had hit Tigray just minutes after the departure of the African Union’s diplomatic envoy, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, who had been discussing peace measures with Tigrayan leaders in the regional capital, Mekelle.
Mr. Trudeau, in a quiet diplomatic campaign, has held repeated telephone talks with Mr. Abiy and other leaders in the Horn of Africa in recent weeks, including a conversation with Mr. Obasanjo on Thursday. His office said he had welcomed the envoy’s efforts but “expressed concern over challenges in ensuring unhindered access to and delivery of humanitarian assistance for those affected by the conflict.”
The drone strikes are another obstacle to the desperately needed supply of aid to Tigray, where the UN estimates that 90 per cent of the population needs emergency assistance. Some aid agencies have already been forced to suspend operations in the area of the displaced people’s camp hit by the air strike because of the threat of further attacks, the UN said.
Many humanitarian workers have been killed since the Tigray conflict began in November, 2020. One aid agency, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), says it is still trying to understand how three of its staff were killed in an apparent execution in Tigray last June. The bodies were found within 400 metres of their well-marked MSF car, and “their injuries showed that each suffered multiple close-range gunshot wounds,” the agency said in a statement this week.
MSF has asked the Ethiopian and Tigrayan authorities to provide information on the whereabouts of their forces at the time but is still awaiting answers.
A major UN agency, the World Food Programme, warned Friday that its food assistance in Northern Tigray is “about to grind to a halt” because intense fighting has blocked the transport of fuel and food.
No convoys of WFP aid have reached Mekelle since mid-December, the agency said. Stocks of nutritionally fortified food for malnourished children and women are now exhausted, and the last of its cereals, pulses and oil will be distributed next week, it said.
“We’re now having to choose who goes hungry to prevent another from starving,” said WFP Eastern Africa director Michael Dunford in a statement. “We’re on the edge of a humanitarian disaster.”
Across Northern Ethiopia, the WFP estimates that 9.4 million people need humanitarian food assistance – the highest number recorded so far, and an increase of 2.7 million in the past four months.
World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who is himself from Tigray, said this week that the Ethiopian government is denying food and medicine to its own people in the region.
“Nowhere in the world are we witnessing hell like in Tigray,” he told reporters. “Imagine a complete blockade of seven million people for more than a year. And there is no food. There is no medication, no medicine. No electricity. No telecom. No media.”
The Ethiopian government responded by saying it had sent a letter of complaint to the WHO, accusing Dr. Tedros of “misconduct” and interference in Ethiopia’s internal affairs.
Other WHO officials, however, have made similar comments to those of Dr. Tedros. The agency’s director of emergencies, Michael Ryan, said this week that the lack of access to basic medicine in Tigray is “an insult to our humanity.” He warned of “catastrophic, imminent health consequences.”
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