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UN 'frustrated' as still unable to get access to Ethiopia's Tigray

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Ethiopian refugees who fled Tigray region build a makeshift shelter within the Um-Rakoba camp in al-Qadarif state, in Sudan, on December 11, 2020. (Photo by Reuters)

The United Nations (UN) says it has not been able yet to reach the people who are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance in Ethiopia's restive region of Tigray, where an armed conflict triggered a refugee crisis and a humanitarian disaster.

The UN has finalized an agreement with Ethiopian authorities on humanitarian access and assessment missions but has yet to see concrete progress, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Monday.

"It's somewhat frustrating to say that we have not been able to go in, we have not been able to reach people that we know are in need," he added. "Days wasted by a lack of agreement or a lack of green light for us is just one more day of suffering for the people who need help."

Tigray, with a population of six million — some one million of them now thought to have been displaced — has remained cut off from the world since an armed conflict erupted between Ethiopian troops and local rebels there last month.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered an army offensive in the restive region on November 4, in response to a deadly attack on an army base that killed at least 54 people.

Abiy accused the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the region's ruling party, of having staged the attack.

His government, which had restricted access to the region, said last week that it had defeated forces loyal to the TPLF and struck a deal with the UN to allow aid.

Aid agencies, however, said the agreement was too restrictive and security remained a problem.

Mekelle, the regional capital and home to 500,000 people, on Saturday received the first humanitarian aid convoy since the war broke out.

The UN Security Council held an informal, closed-door video conference on the situation in Tigray on Monday, at the request of the United States and European members.

"We need full, safe, unhindered access for humanitarian workers, " said Germany's UN Ambassador to Christoph Heusgen after the meeting. "We have information that refugee camps will run out of food by the end of this week."

"We have information that refugees are prevented from fleeing to Sudan... There are also reports that Eritrean soldiers appear to control some movement of refugees in the Eritrean border region. Again, all this must stop," he said.

The Ethiopian government is meanwhile trying to restore normalcy to Tigray. The government on Monday ordered civil servants to go back to work and gun owners to disarm.

Some power and telephone links were also restored in Mekelle after a virtual communications blackout, according to Abiy's government.

Accounts of hunger and harassment, however, emerged from refugees, along with reports of big fuel and food price hikes as well as water shortages.

Citing three refugees in the Adi Harush camp, Reuters said there was no food and little water and they were being mistreated by armed men without uniforms. The men had raped two women, one of the refugees said.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, had said formerly that the UNHCR had received "an overwhelming number of disturbing reports" of refugees being killed or kidnapped and forcibly returned to Eritrea, which borders Tigray to the north.

Thousands of people have so far been killed in Tigray, according to the International Crisis Group think tank, and around 50,000 Ethiopians have fled to refugee camps across the border in Sudan.

Human rights groups say they have documented at least one large-scale massacre in the region, and that others are feared.

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