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UN chief urges Ethiopia and Tigray leaders to halt fighting

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Thursday urged Ethiopia’s prime minister and the leader of its restive Tigray region to immediately halt the latest eruption of hostilities, which has set back efforts to restore peace and tackle a humanitarian crisis in Tigray.

Guterres also called for “the creation of conditions to restart an effective political dialogue” in separate phone calls with Ethiopian leader Abiy Ahmed and Debretsion Gebremichael, head of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

Tigray authorities alleged Wednesday that Ethiopia’s military had launched a “large-scale” offensive for the first time in a year in Tigray, while the government countered that Tigray forces attacked first.

The conflict began in November 2020, killing thousands of people in Africa’s second-most populous country. Now, as then, both sides have acted at a moment when the world was focused elsewhere — the U.S. presidential election in 2020 and the six-month mark of the Ukraine war Wednesday.

The conflict had calmed in recent months amid slow-moving mediation efforts. But last week, Ahmed’s spokeswoman asserted that Tigray authorities were “refusing to accept peace talks,” and this week, Ethiopia’s military warned the public against reporting troop movements.

On Wednesday, the United Nations said Tigray forces forcibly entered a World Food Program warehouse in the regional capital, Mekele, and took 12 fuel tankers meant for the delivery of badly needed humanitarian aid.

U.N. humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths condemned the diversion of the tankers in a statement Thursday, saying they carrying over 570,000 liters of fuel that was “meant to help the U.N. and its partners bring humanitarian supplies to people who badly need assistance.”

“Without them, people will be left without food, nutrition supplements, medicines and other essential items,” he warned. “At a time when malnutrition and food insecurity are rising, the consequences can be dire.”

Griffiths demanded an end to the obstruction of humanitarian aid and protection of supplies throughout Ethiopia. He renewed calls to restore basic services in Tigray, including banking and electricity, “which would contribute substantially to an improvement in the humanitarian situation in that region.”

Guterres' spokesman said an estimated 2 million liters of fuel are required every month for humanitarian operations.

“It is now the lean season, and we are highly concerned about the impact this might have on malnutrition rates and food insecurity in the region,” Dujarric said.

He said that since early April, when food supplies started getting to Tigray by the only road to Mekele, more than 81,000 metric tons of food had been distributed to about 4.8 million people by mid-August.

Earlier this month, the World Health Organization's director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, described the crisis in Tigray as “the worst disaster on Earth.” Ghebreyesus, an ethnic Tigrayan, wondered aloud if the reason global leaders have not responded was due to “the color of the skin of the people in Tigray.”

Humanitarian aid began flowing to Tigray earlier this year, but the World Food Program said last week that with little fuel allowed, “this is yet to translate into increased humanitarian assistance.” The U.N. agency said malnutrition has skyrocketed, with 29% of children malnourished and 2.4 million people severely food insecure.

Months of political tensions between Ethiopia’s government and Tigray leaders who once dominated the government exploded into war in November 2020.

Following some of the fiercest fighting of the conflict, Ethiopian soldiers fled Mekele in June 2021 and the government declared a national state of emergency with sweeping powers. A drone-assisted government military offensive halted the Tigrayans’ approach to Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, and last December the Tigrayans retreated back to Tigray.

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