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Ethiopian refugees who fled fighting in Tigray province lay in a hut at the Um Rakuba camp in Sudan's eastern Gedaref province, on Nov. 18, 2020.


Ethiopia’s rebellious Tigray region, struggling for basic supplies under an unofficial blockade by the Ethiopian military, is seeing its food and fuel stocks dwindling as relief agencies are prevented from sending aid into the region.

Both sides in the two-week war continued to claim military victories on Wednesday, but there was no sign of a quick end to the fighting, and humanitarian agencies warned that they still had no access to the region – a potential war crime.

Tigray’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), said it had withdrawn troops from some towns in southern Tigray as it repositioned its defensive lines. Federal forces, backed by warplanes, were reportedly about 125 kilometres from the regional capital, Mekele, facing mountainous terrain that was likely to help the TPLF to withstand attack.

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The TPLF said it would never surrender. “Tigray is now a hell to its enemies,” it said on Wednesday.

The Ethiopian government says its military offensive is simply a “law enforcement operation,” targeted only at the TPLF, which it calls a criminal clique. It says the assault will ultimately benefit the people of Tigray. But so far there is strong evidence that civilians are paying the price for the military offensive as the humanitarian disaster grows worse.

In the space of a few days, the number of refugees fleeing from Tigray to neighbouring Sudan has climbed to 36,000, overwhelming the capacity of transit camps and local villages on the Sudan side of the border.

“In just two weeks, escalating fighting in Tigray and northern Ethiopia has triggered immense suffering and risks spiralling into a wider humanitarian crisis,” the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Wednesday.

Ethiopian Red Cross ambulances have transported hundreds of injured people in the war zone, even though three Red Cross ambulances have come under attack, the ICRC said.

One hospital in Gondar, near Tigray, has treated more than 400 people with injuries from the war, while also providing care for 14 patients with COVID-19, the Red Cross committee said. It warned of the strain that hospitals could face as they treat war wounds during a pandemic.

But an even bigger danger was the lack of humanitarian access to the Tigray region, where about 100,000 Eritrean refugees were living in camps before the conflict and an estimated 100,000 Tigrayans have been forced from their homes in the past two weeks. At least a million people in Tigray were dependent on food aid before the conflict, but United Nations agencies have been unable to get access to the war zone to estimate the current level of displacement and need.

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“With the numbers of displaced persons growing and access being curtailed by air and road, the need to be able to move response items into Tigray is ever more critical,” the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said in a report on Wednesday.

“The lack of access to fuel is now critical and will cause UNHCR operations to come to standstill without replenishments within the next week,” the agency said.

Telephone and internet access has been cut off in the region, worsening the supply problems. “Restocking warehouses with humanitarian supplies in Tigray region remains impossible,” said another UN agency, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Mark Lowcock, the UN chief of emergency relief, called on both sides to “respect international humanitarian law” – a reference to laws about war crimes, including the crime of blocking humanitarian access to a war zone.

“I am increasingly concerned about the evolving humanitarian situation in northern Ethiopia and neighbouring areas,” Mr. Lowcock said. “Humanitarian workers must be able to deliver assistance without fear of attack.”

His statement made clear that the UN agencies are still talking to the Ethiopian government to seek access to Tigray, without success so far.

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Western governments, including Canada, have raised the issue of humanitarian access in their latest statements about the conflict.

“Canada is deeply concerned by recent developments in Ethiopia, including ongoing reports of violence and allegations of atrocities,” Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said in a statement on Tuesday.

“We urge all parties to protect civilians and ensure that human rights, humanitarian access and international law are respected, and for a peaceful resolution to be sought by all parties.”

Three scholars at European universities, who specialize in food security issues in Ethiopia, warned this week that Tigray could be heading for a famine that would rival Ethiopia’s great famine of 1984-85, which killed an estimated one million people and sparked a global relief campaign.

“We are very concerned that the situation will lead to famine,” scholars Seppe Deckers, Jan Nyssen and Sil Lanckriet said in a commentary in The Conversation. “The conflict not only affects the harvest season that has just begun. It also has led to a complete stop of potential aid and government funding to the region.”

They cited the closing of borders and the shutdown of road and air access, which has disrupted supply chains and made food aid impossible; the restrictions on banking services and budget transfers in the region; the lack of funds for civil society groups; and the heavy damage from a recent outbreak of desert locusts, which has destroyed vast areas of farmland.

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