Ethiopia says won't 'suffocate' Tigray as UN clamours for access

Ethiopia on Friday rejected charges that it planned to choke off aid to war-hit Tigray after rebels took control of the northern region this week — a stunning turnabout in the eight-month-old conflict. 

The comments from Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen came a day after two key bridges allowing desperately-needed aid into Tigray were destroyed and as the UN warned more lives would be lost if supply routes were not restored.

“The insinuation that we are planning to suffocate the Tigrayan people by denying humanitarian access and using hunger as a weapon of war is beyond the pale,” Demeke told diplomats gathered at a hotel in the capital Addis Ababa.

Officials are “using every ounce of our strength to extricate” Tigrayan civilians “from the dire situation they find themselves in”, he added. 

Later Friday, the UN Security Council is due to hold its first public meeting on the conflict that has left thousands of dead and plunged hundreds of thousands into hunger.  

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, sent troops into Tigray last November to detain and disarm leaders of the regional ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). 

He said the move was in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps, and he declared victory within weeks after federal forces took the regional capital Mekele. 

But after months of regrouping, the Tigrayan rebels — having rebranded themselves the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) — launched a major counter-offensive last month that allowed them to retake Mekele and assert control over most of the region. 

The government then announced a unilateral ceasefire that the TDF has dismissed as “a joke.”

– ‘Lives will be lost’ –

The war has already exerted a staggering humanitarian toll, with the United States estimating 900,000 civilians are “likely already experiencing famine conditions”. 

The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) says 5.2 million people, or 91 percent of Tigray’s population, need emergency food assistance. 

On Friday, the WFP said it had resumed aid operations after a two-day pause and hoped to reach 30,000 people “by the weekend”.

But it said lives were in the balance after two major bridges leading into Tigray were destroyed.

“Families are receiving some of the last of WFP’s food stocks. Lives will be lost if supply routes into Tigray do not fully open and parties to the conflict continue to disrupt or endanger free movement of cargo for WFP and other emergency responders.”

The UN has said one of the bridges was “reportedly” blown up by security forces from the Amhara region, south of Tigray, but the government on Friday blamed Tigrayan forces. 

In his comments to diplomats Friday, Demeke reiterated the government’s position that the ceasefire was motivated by humanitarian concerns and to facilitate farming. 

But with electricity and telecommunications cut off, flights suspended and most roads into the region now impassable, UN officials and diplomats fear the situation could deteriorate further.

“A ceasefire doesn’t mean cutting a region off power or destroying critical infrastructure,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Twitter.

“A credible ceasefire means doing everything possible so that aid reaches the millions of children, women and men who urgently need it.”

Tigray’s pre-war government said it would support the UN and aid groups “working to deliver life-saving assistance” to Tigrayans.

“We remain committed to facilitating humanitarian access and supporting our partners, cooperating with them as they pass across territories of different control,” it said in a statement. 

– Path to dialogue? –

Demeke also said that, following national elections last month that are expected to give Abiy a new term, the government was preparing for an “inclusive dialogue” to resolve the crisis. 

“This dialogue process is expected to involve legal opposition parties, rank-and-file members of the TPLF who show readiness to choose a peaceful path, the business community, civil society organisations, elders, other prominent personalities,” he said.

Such a dialogue has long been sought by diplomats lobbying for a political resolution of the war. 

But in a closed question-and-answer session with diplomats, officials indicated that dialogue with the TPLF leadership remained off the table.

In May lawmakers designated the TPLF a terrorist organisation.

When pressed by diplomats on how that might affect whatever dialogue takes place, Demeke said some TPLF members were “innocent” and could be included, according to three attendees.

But both Demeke and Redwan Hussein, spokesman for a government task force on the Tigray conflict, told diplomats that Addis Ababa was committed to “accountability” for TPLF leaders, the diplomats said.

“The actions of the TPLF must be condemned,” the diplomats quoted Redwan as saying.

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