Tens of thousands of malnourished children risk dying in hard-to-reach areas of Ethiopia's conflict-racked Tigray region, which is now facing famine, the UN said on Friday.
"Without humanitarian access to scale up our response, an estimated 30,000-plus severely malnourished children in those highly inaccessible areas are at high risk of death," the UN children's fund spokesman James Elder said in Geneva.
His comments came after the UN on Thursday said about 350,000 people in Tigray were facing famine, while two million more were a step away from those extreme conditions.
"There is famine now in Tigray," UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said.,"Every expert you speak to will tell you this is going to get a lot worse."
Mr Lowcock said recent data showed that the number of people classified as being in famine conditions was "higher than anywhere in the world at any moment since a quarter of a million Somalis lost their lives in 2011".
The UN said that more than 90 per cent of the more than five million people in the Tigray region need emergency food aid and urgently appealed for more than $200 million to scale up the organisation's response.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, sent troops into the northern region in November to detain and disarm leaders of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the area's former ruling party.
He said the move was in response to attacks on federal army camps.
Although he promised that the conflict would be brief, fighting continues seven months later and reports of atrocities, including the widespread use of rape, are proliferating. Many leaders are concerned that a major catastrophe is looming.
The US and the EU on Thursday issued a plea for greater international efforts to tackle famine in the region.
International aid organisations repeatedly say they are being denied access to the region by Ethiopian forces and troops from neighbouring Eritrea.
A UN report released this week says the Eritrean military has committed “deliberate attacks against civilians and summary executions, indiscriminate attacks, sexual and gender-based violence, arbitrary detention, destruction and looting of civilian property and displacement and abduction of Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers".
On Wednesday, the US Agency for International Development announced that it is providing more than $181m in aid to more than three million people in Tigray.
The US is also attempting to increase pressure within the UN Security Council to end the fighting.
US ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield expressed her frustration at the paralysis within the UN Security Council and its failure to end the suffering caused by the fighting.
“The humanitarian situation in Tigray is a moment of truth for the international community. Thousands have been killed or horrifically abused during this crisis. When will the UN Security Council or [the African Union] Peace and Security Council speak up and act?” she asked on Twitter.
Richard Gowan, UN director at the International Crisis Group, pointed to several elements, including Russian and Chinese support for Ethiopia, that have stalled UN action on the issue.
"Other crises, like Myanmar, have overshadowed Tigray at the UN this year, but it is proving a hugely divisive issue. African members of the council have only offered tepid support for council statements, and China and Russia are taking Ethiopia's side," Mr Gowan told The National.
On Thursday, Ethiopian Foreign Minister Demeke Hassen held a phone conversation with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi.
“We affirmed our mutual commitment for co-operation and respect for each other’s sovereignty to handle internal matters resisting undue interferences,” Mr Hassen tweeted.
Though China and Russia seem to have sided with Ethiopia, Mr Gowan pointed to the US and Ireland as main proponents of UN action.
“Tigray is facing famine, but diplomats are still bickering about whether to even have a public meeting on the crisis. This is turning into a moral failure for the UN,” he said.
The UN Security Council statement issued in April on Tigray refrained from calling for a ceasefire, a US and EU demand that Ethiopia has resisted.
The only possible turning point would be if African Union states were to lose patience with Ethiopia, Mr Gowan said.
“But for now, the council is limping towards a catastrophe.”
The conflict has already displaced about two million civilians, and about 5.5 million people are facing food insecurity in the Tigray and Amhara regions, the UN said in a report released this week.
Human rights organisations such as Doctors Without Borders and Amnesty International have documented several incidents of sexual violence, extrajudicial killings, massacres and other grave abuses committed during the conflict.