Ethiopia has granted the United Nations full access to deliver aid to the northern region of Tigray, following weeks of lobbying amid military operations there, according to an agreement seen Wednesday by AFP.
The agreement, signed by Ethiopia’s peace minister, allows for “unimpeded, sustained and secure access for humanitarian personnel and services to vulnerable populations in [government]-administered areas in Tigray and bordering areas of Amhara and Afar regions”.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, announced military operations against leaders of Tigray’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), on November 4, saying they were in response to TPLF-organised attacks on federal army camps.
Thousands have died in subsequent fighting and tens of thousands have fled into neighbouring Sudan.
The government blocked phone and internet connections and restricted access to Tigray, making it difficult to assess conditions within the region.
The UN has been warning for weeks about a possible humanitarian catastrophe.
Around 600,000 people living in Tigray depended on food handouts before the fighting began, among them 96,000 Eritrean refugees.
Food, fuel and cash are in short supply, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), while the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says basic medical equipment is lacking.
A senior UN official told AFP Wednesday the aid agreement would allow the UN and humanitarian partners to administer assistance “wherever people are in need”.
The officials said needs assessments would begin “as soon as we get clearance from our security staff”.
– Caretaker administration –
On Saturday night Abiy declared military operations were “completed” after federal forces took control of the regional capital Mekele.
The TPLF leadership, however, has vowed to fight on and says combat continues in multiple locations.
Tigray head Debretsion Gebremichael said Tuesday that fighting persisted in at least three locations, two of which were “around Mekele” and another near the town of Wukro, 50 kilometres (30 miles) north.
The communications blackout has made it impossible to verify claims from both sides on how the fighting is going.
Abiy intends to establish a caretaker administration in Tigray headed by Mulu Nega, formerly a senior official at Ethiopia’s higher education ministry.
On Wednesday Mulu announced administrators had been installed in the town of Shire, located roughly 250 kilometres (155 miles) northwest of Mekele, according to a report by state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate.
Analysts warn, however, that Mulu’s administration could meet resistance from the Tigrayan population.
The TPLF dominated Ethiopian politics for nearly three decades before anti-government protests swept Abiy to power in 2018.
Since then TPLF leaders have complained of being removed from top positions, targeted in corruption prosecutions and broadly scapegoated for the country’s woes.
Tensions escalated dramatically after Tigray went ahead with regional elections in September, defying a nationwide ban on polls because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Federal officials declared the Tigray elections “illegal”, while the TPLF dismissed Abiy an illegitimate ruler who no longer had authority to make decisions affecting the region.