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400,000 face Ethiopia famine

Senior U.N. officials warned that more than 400,000 people are suffering from famine in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, and 1.8 million more are on the verge.

Ethiopia's Tigray region
Ethiopia's Tigray region (AN/Rod Waddington)

UNITED NATIONS (AN) — Senior U.N. officials warned on Friday that more than 400,000 people are fighting to stay alive in the face of famine in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, and 1.8 million more are on the verge of having almost nothing to eat.

The officials provided the grim assessment to the U.N. Security Council's first open meeting on the conflict in Tigray, which erupted in November after an attack on a military base that prompted Ethiopia’s government to seize control of several towns and a humanitarian base with nearly 100,000 Eritrean refugees.

Their reports noted there have been at least 1,200 sexual and gender-based attacks as they appealed to the 15-nation council based in New York to help ensure that humanitarian workers have unrestricted access to the region. At least 12 humanitarian workers there, including three from Geneva-based Médecins Sans Frontières, have been killed in attacks.

Ramesh Rajasingham, the U.N.'s acting undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said 400,000 people have "crossed the threshold into famine" with 1.8 million more close behind them in the northern Ethiopia region, where many of the farms suffered from swarms of locusts.

“The lives of many of these people depend on our ability to reach them with food, medicine, nutrition supplies and other humanitarian assistance,” he told the council, which met four days after Ethiopia's government announced a unilateral humanitarian cease-fire.

The Tigray Defense Force, which controls the region's capital Mekelle, has not yet agreed to it. “And we need to reach them now. Not next week. Now.”

Millions are 'desperately suffering

'Rosemary DiCarlo, the U.N.'s undersecretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs, said 1.7 million people have been displaced and 60,000 refugees crossed the border into neighboring Sudan due to fighting between Ethiopian troops and Tigray forces.

With an estimated 5.2 million people in need of humanitarian aid, DiCarlo called on the Tigray Defense Force “to endorse the cease-fire immediately and completely."

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed — who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for defusing tensions with neighboring Eritrea — and Tigray’s regional administration consider each other to be unlawful.

Tigray defied the government by holding an election, while Abiy postponed holding the scheduled 2020 general elections until last month, citing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though the council did not act or issue a statement after the meeting, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the council is watching the region closely due to its many reported atrocities.

"We’ve heard from NGOs and U.N. agencies about vast displacements, countless human rights abuses, hundreds of thousands of people facing famine, the bombing of civilians, the killing and intimidation of humanitarian workers, the systematic rape of women and girls and unspeakable acts of sexual violence, the purposeful obstruction of humanitarian aid, the deliberate destruction of U.N. communications equipment," Thomas-Greenfield said.

"We know that millions of civilians in the region are desperately suffering, and we called for today’s briefing because the conflict needs to end," she said. "We need to marshal more funding and scale up the U.N. response, we need to ensure respect for international humanitarian law and humanitarian access, and we need public accountability for the atrocities that have been committed."