Aid groups say four workers killed in Ethiopia's Tigray region

Struggle to send in aid continues as government restricts access despite declaring victory over Tigrayan forces

TOPSHOT - A member of the Ethiopian Defense Forces walks away from a damaged military truck abandoned on a road near the village of Ayasu Gebriel, East of the Ethiopian city of Alamata, on December 10, 2020. / AFP / EDUARDO SOTERAS
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Two international aid agencies on Friday said four staff members were killed during last month's fighting in Ethiopia's troubled northern Tigray region.

The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) reported the deaths of three security guards, while the International Rescue Committee (IRC) said one of its staff members had been killed.

DRC said it was "deeply saddened to confirm the death of three colleagues".

"Sadly, due to the lack of communications and ongoing insecurity in the region, it has not yet been possible to reach their families," it said.

In another statement, IRC said it "regrets to confirm the killing of a staff member in Hitsats Refugee Camp in Shire".

"Our in-country staff are the very heart of our work and are key in our ability to provide support and assistance to our clients," it said.

"Communication with the area is extremely difficult and we are still working to gather and confirm the details surrounding the events."

Despite Ethiopian President Abiy Ahmed's declaration of victory over Tigrayan forces on November 28, the United Nations and aid agencies have said fighting continues.

The Tigray region remains largely sealed off from the outside world as worried humanitarian organisations warn of growing hunger, attacks on refugees and dwindling medicine and other supplies.

Sightline with Tim Marshall - Ethiopia's Tigray crisis

Sightline with Tim Marshall - Ethiopia's Tigray crisis

The government has made clear it intends to manage the process of delivering aid to Tigray, and it has rejected “interference”. On Friday it said it had begun delivering aid to areas in Tigray under its control, including Shire and the Tigray capital, Mekele, a city of half a million people.

“Suggestions that humanitarian assistance is impeded due to active military combat in several cities and surrounding areas within the Tigray region is untrue and undermines the critical work undertaken by the National Defence Forces to stabilise the region from the attacks waged by the belligerent clique," Mr Abiy's office said. Sporadic gunfire, it said, “need not be misconstrued as active conflict".

The Ethiopian and Tigray governments each regard the other as illegitimate, the result of months of growing friction since Mr Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018 and sidelined the once-dominant Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

Thousands of people, including civilians, are thought to have been killed in the fighting, which began on November 4 and has threatened to destabilise the Horn of Africa.

The IRC called for an immediate ceasefire by all parties after “an intense bout of conflict”.

The aid group works to assist 96,000 refugees from Eritrea who shelter in camps near the border with that reclusive country. Food in those camps reportedly ran out days ago, and thousands of the refugees have left in search of help.

Frustration among humanitarian groups is widespread as the Tigray region remains largely unreachable and supply-laden trucks have waited for weeks at its borders. Ethiopia's government says it is responsible for ensuring the security of humanitarian efforts — though the conflict and related ethnic tensions have left many ethnic Tigrayans wary of government forces.

The United Nations has stressed the need for neutral, unfettered access to a region where fears of ethnic tensions remain high.

“Food rations for displaced people in Tigray have run out,” the UN humanitarian office tweeted Friday. “We reiterate our urgent call for unconditional and safe humanitarian access to the affected regions. People in need are still not able to access any assistance.”

The UN's Secretary General Antonio Guterres announced on Wednesday that it had reached a new agreement for joint missions to assess humanitarian needs in Tigray.

The deal, struck a week after an earlier accord proved impossible to implement right away, will "make sure that there is full access to the whole of the territory and full capacity to start humanitarian operations based on real needs and without any kind of discrimination", Mr Guterres said.

This week, Ethiopia's government said its forces shot at and briefly detained UN staffers conducting their first security assessment in Tigray, a crucial step in delivering aid. Ethiopia said the staffers had broken through checkpoints in an attempt to go where they were not allowed.

Meanwhile, nearly 50,000 Ethiopians have fled to Sudan as refugees and now live in difficult conditions in a remote region with few resources.