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A rising number of starvation deaths have been reported in Tigray in recent weeks. The United Nations has estimated that it needs to send about 100 trucks of aid into Tigray per day to meet the region’s basic needs.AMANUEL SILESHI/Getty Images

A new ground and air offensive by government troops in northern Ethiopia is worsening a humanitarian catastrophe that has pushed 900,000 people into famine and threatens the lives of millions more.

The Ethiopian government, reportedly allied with local militias and Eritrean soldiers, launched the offensive against Tigrayan rebels last week in Amhara region near Tigray. The military operation has included tanks, rockets, drones, heavy artillery, fighter jets and hundreds of thousands of ground troops, Tigrayan leaders say.

The offensive is a drastic escalation in the war that erupted last November when the government tried to subdue the rebellious Tigray region. The conflict has killed thousands of people, but the toll could climb much higher because of an unofficial government blockade of aid supplies. An estimated two million people have been driven from their homes and seven million people are in need of emergency aid.

The latest fighting is likely to jeopardize the already inadequate flow of aid into northern Ethiopia. “These are incredibly worrying days,” said Hardin Lang, vice-president for programs and policy at Refugees International, an advocacy group.

“The offensive now under way, we anticipate, will have serious and significant humanitarian consequences in what is already an acute situation,” Mr. Lang told a briefing on Wednesday.

“This could become the worst humanitarian crisis in the world,” he said.

Ethiopia expels seven top UN officials after criticism of Tigray blockade

Getachew Reda, a spokesperson for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, told the Reuters news agency that the government offensive has provoked a continuing battle and the number of casualties is “staggering.”

The World Health Organization warned on Wednesday that millions of lives are now at stake in northern Ethiopia because the war has devastated the health system and the blockade has prevented any supplies of medicine from reaching Tigray for the past three months.

“People with chronic illnesses are dying due to a lack of food and medicine,” said WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, himself an Ethiopian from Tigray.

“Just a fraction of health facilities in Tigray remain operational due to a lack of fuel and supplies,” he told a briefing in Geneva.

The crisis is growing worse “by the day,” he said. “We are seeing acute malnutrition rates at levels comparable to those we saw at the onset of the 2011 Somalia famine.”

A rising number of starvation deaths have been reported in Tigray in recent weeks. The United Nations has estimated that it needs to send about 100 trucks of aid into Tigray per day to meet the region’s basic needs. But since July, only about 10 per cent of this amount has reached the region because of “official and unofficial checkpoints and roadblocks, insecurity and other obstacles,” Dr. Tedros said.

The Ethiopian military has been preparing for its latest offensive in the north for weeks, with a buildup of troops and imported weaponry. Analysts have recorded more than 50 cargo flights landing in Ethiopia, mainly at a military base, from the United Arab Emirates and Iran in the past two months. The planes reportedly contain weapons, including military drones from China, Turkey and Iran.

Ethiopia has also expelled seven senior officials from UN agencies in the country, silencing key voices that could have documented the toll of the expanding war.

“The conflict has taken a sharp turn for the worse,” said David Del Conte, a Refugees International campaigner who was deputy director of the UN’s humanitarian affairs office in Ethiopia from 2012 to 2016.

“We’re desperately concerned with what it might become. The famine is only going to start taking more lives at an accelerated pace.”

The Tigray conflict has inflicted heavy damage on Ethiopia’s economy, with food prices soaring and growth endangered. The International Monetary Fund, in its global outlook report on Wednesday, took the highly unusual step of omitting any projections for Ethiopia’s economy over the next five years. It said it could not make forecasts “due to an unusually high degree of uncertainty.”

Diplomatic pressure on Ethiopia is intensifying. The United States has threatened to impose sanctions on senior Ethiopian officials and is conducting an internal review to decide on possible targets for the sanctions. U.S. President Joe Biden is scheduled to hold talks on Thursday in the White House with Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, who has called for a political solution to end the war in Ethiopia.

On Tuesday, the United States convened an urgent meeting of senior representatives from more than a dozen donor countries, including Canada, to discuss the crisis in northern Ethiopia.

“Participants underscored their deep concern over deteriorating humanitarian conditions on the ground,” said a statement issued after the meeting by Samantha Power, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Many people in Tigray “are going multiple days without food and have resorted to eating leaves,” she said.

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