UN estimates at least 108 civilians were killed in Tigray air strikes this month

A humanitarian disaster is looming in the war-torn area, UN says

Villagers return from a market to Yechila town in south central Tigray, walking past scores of burned vehicles. Reuters
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At least 108 civilians were killed this month in a series of air strikes in the northern Tigray region of Ethiopia, the UN said on Friday, warning of a looming humanitarian disaster in the war-torn area.

The UN's food distribution operations are on the verge of grinding to a halt, AFP reported the UN as saying.

"My appeal to the parties: stop the fighting in all its forms," UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said on Twitter. "All people who need humanitarian aid must receive it as quickly as possible. It's time to start dialogue and reconciliation."

The UN human rights office urged the Ethiopian authorities to ensure the protection of civilians, saying disproportionate attacks hitting non-military targets could amount to war crimes.

Northern Ethiopia has been beset by conflict since November 2020 when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray after accusing the region's ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front, of attacks on federal army camps.

"We are alarmed by the multiple, deeply disturbing reports we continue to receive of civilian casualties and destruction of civilian objects resulting from airstrikes in Ethiopia's Tigray region," rights office spokeswoman Liz Throssell told reporters in Geneva.

"At least 108 civilians have reportedly been killed and 75 others injured since the year began, as a result of airstrikes allegedly carried out by the Ethiopian air force."

She detailed a series of air strikes, including the January 7 attack on the Dedebit camp for internally displaced persons, which left at least 56 dead and 30 others wounded, of which three later died in hospital.

On Monday, 17 civilians were reportedly killed and 21 injured after an air strike hit a flour mill, and on Tuesday, the state-owned Technical Vocational Education and Training institute was hit, reportedly killing three men, said Ms Throssell.

Numerous other air strikes were reported last week, she added.

"We call on the Ethiopian authorities and their allies to ensure the protection of civilians and civilian objects, in line with their obligations under international law," said Ms Throssell.

"Failure to respect the principles of distinction and proportionality could amount to war crimes."

The UN's World Food Programme said its distributions were at an all-time low, with the escalation of the conflict meaning that no WFP convoy has reached the Tigrayan capital Mekele since mid-December.

"Life-saving food assistance operations in northern Ethiopia are about to grind to a halt because intense fighting in the neighbourhood that has blocked the passage of fuel and food," WFP spokesman Tomson Phiri told reporters.

"After 14 months of conflict in northern Ethiopia, more people than ever need urgent food assistance.

"With no food, no fuel, no access, we are on the edge of a major humanitarian disaster."

Meanwhile, Ethiopia has asked the UN health agency to investigate its chief, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, for "harmful misinformation" and "misconduct", accusing him of backing rebels in his native war-torn Tigray region.

Dr Tedros, the highest-profile Tigrayan abroad, had described conditions in the Ethiopian region as "hell" and said the government was preventing medicines and other life-saving aid from reaching locals.

Addis Ababa said his comments threatened the WHO's integrity, and called for Dr Tedros to be investigated for "misconduct and violation of his professional and legal responsibility".

"He has been interfering in the internal affairs of Ethiopia, including Ethiopia's relations with the state of Eritrea," the foreign ministry said on Thursday, quoting a letter it sent to the WHO.

Updated: January 15, 2022, 6:23 AM