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A woman carries an infant as she queues in line for food, at the Tsehaye primary school, which was turned into a temporary shelter for people displaced by conflict, in the town of Shire, Tigray region, Ethiopia, March 15, 2021.

BAZ RATNER/Reuters

The United Nations said Friday that more than 400,000 people in Ethiopia’s crisis-wracked Tigray region are now facing the worst global famine in decades and 1.8 million are on the brink, and warned that despite the government’s unilateral ceasefire there is serious potential for fighting in western Tigray.

The dire UN reports to the first open meeting of the UN Security Council since the conflict in Tigray began last November and painted a devastating picture of a region where humanitarian access is extremely restricted, 5.2 million people need aid, and Tigray forces that returned to their capital Mekele after the government’s June 28 ceasefire and exit from the region have not agreed to the halt to hostilities.

UN political chief Rosemary DiCarlo urged the Tigray Defense Force “to endorse the ceasefire immediately and completely,” stressing that the UN’s immediate concern is to get desperately need aid to the region.

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Acting UN humanitarian chief Ramesh Rajasingham said the situation in Tigray “has worsened dramatically” in the last two and a half weeks, citing “an alarming rise in food insecurity and hunger due to conflict” with the number of people crossing the threshold to famine increasing to 400,000 and with 1.8 million a step away and some suggesting “the numbers are even higher.”

“The lives of many of these people depend on our ability to reach them with food, medicine, nutrition supplies and other humanitarian assistance,” he said. “And we need to reach them now. Not next week. Now.”

The largely agricultural Tigray region of about six million people already had a food security problem amid a locust outbreak when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Nov. 4 announced fighting between his forces and those of the defiant regional government. Tigray leaders dominated Ethiopia for almost three decades but were sidelined after Abiy introduced reforms that won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.

Ethiopia government withdrawal from Tigray capital opens new chapter in war, analysts say

Ethiopia PM says army quit Tigray as it’s no longer a ‘centre’ of conflict

Canada will finance investigation in Tigray after reports of massacres by Ethiopian, Eritrean soldiers

No one knows how many thousands of civilians or combatants have been killed. DiCarlo said an estimated 1.7 million people have been displaced from their homes, and more than 60,000 have fled into neighboring Sudan. Though Abiy declared victory in late November, Ethiopia’s military kept up the offensive with allied fighters from neighboring Eritrea, a bitter enemy of the now-fugitive officials who once led Tigray, and from the Amhara region adjacent to Tigray.

In a stunning turn earlier this week, Ethiopia declared a unilateral ceasefire on humanitarian grounds while retreating from advancing Tigray forces. But the government faces growing international pressure as it continues to cut off the region from the rest of the world.

DiCarlo said reports indicate that leaders of Tigray’s previous regional administration including its former president have returned to Mekele, which has no electrical power or internet. “Key infrastructure has been destroyed, and there are no flights entering or leaving the area,” she said.

Elsewhere in Tigray, DiCarlo said, Eritrean forces, who have been accused by witnesses of some of the worst atrocities in the war, have “withdrawn to areas adjacent to the border” with Eritrea.

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Amhara forces remain in western Tigray, and DiCarlo said the Amhara branch of the ruling Prosperity Party warned in a statement on June 29 that the region’s forces will remain in territory it seized in the west during the conflict.

“In short, there is potential for more confrontations and a swift deterioration in the security situation, which is extremely concerning,” she warned.

Rajasingham, the acting humanitarian chief, told the council that “what we are seeing in Tigray is a protection crisis,” citing civilian killings during the conflict, and more than 1,200 cases of serious sexual and gender-based violence reported, “with more continuing to emerge.”

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