The UN’s head of political and peacebuilding affairs, Rosemary DiCarlo, said on Friday that a rebel recapture of northern Ethiopia’s turbulent Tigray region may not mark the end of the eight-month conflict.
Addressing the first open UN Security Council meeting on the crisis, Ms DiCarlo warned of “more confrontations” and a “swift deterioration” in the conflict unless the warring parties hammer out a peace deal.
Ethiopian government forces and those from Eritrea have largely withdrawn from the region, but ethnic militants from nearby Amhara were holding on to parts of western Tigray seized during the conflict, said Ms DiCarlo.
“There is potential for more confrontations and a swift deterioration in the security situation, which is extremely concerning,” she said.
Ethiopia is at a “critical juncture” and there is a “need to address issues plaguing the country in a comprehensive and sustainable way,” said Ms DiCarlo.
“The consequences of not doing so could be disastrous.”
The US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, called for a lasting ceasefire agreed to by all sides, better access for aid workers and the full withdrawal of Eritrean forces from Tigray.
“The parties to the conflict know that we are watching them, and we're watching them closely,” Ms Thomas-Greenfield told reporters before the meeting.
Council members have discussed the crisis behind closed doors six times since the conflict erupted in November. The US, Britain and Ireland had pushed for this first public meeting.
Tigray’s former rulers, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, said on Monday they were back in control of the regional capital Mekelle.
Ethiopia’s government declared a unilateral ceasefire this week.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed acknowledged government troops had left Mekelle but played down the withdrawal, saying the conflict was no longer a priority.
Mr Abiy has come under mounting international pressure to bring an end to the conflict.
The UN and humanitarian agencies have scrambled to bring aid into Tigray, which became largely inaccessible after the latest bout of fighting.
Roads and airports remain closed and a key bridge on the Tekeze River has been destroyed amid reports of similar destruction elsewhere, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Friday.
“The destruction and vandalisation of vital infrastructure are seriously threatening the provision of humanitarian assistance,” Mr Dujarric told reporters.
“All parties to the conflict must protect civilians and civilian infrastructure.”
Ethiopia’s government has said that humanitarian flights into Tigray could resume as soon as this weekend, he added.
UN officials described relative calm in Mekelle, Adigrat, Adwa, Aksum, Shire and other major towns this week after they were returned to rebel control, but there were clashes in southern and north-western parts of the turbulent region.
The UN said last month that at least 350,000 people in Tigray were facing famine and 5.2 million others needed aid after months of fighting. Widespread rape, civilian killings and other atrocities committed by various forces have also been reported.
Gezahegn Kebede Gebrehana, Ethiopia's director for the charity Oxfam, said aid workers needed more access across the region.
“This is a crucial time for farmers to plant crops,” Mr Gebrehana said in a statement.
“If they aren’t safe to do so, it will continue the cycle of hunger and have deadly consequences for months to come.”
The conflict in Tigray has been deeply challenging for aid workers who have pleaded for better access to the region since fighting began, with Ethiopian forces backed by troops from neighbouring Eritrea pursuing Tigray’s former leaders.
At least a dozen aid workers have been killed, including three humanitarians with the medical charity Doctors Without Borders, whose bodies were discovered last week.