A UN humanitarian flight touched down in northern Ethiopia on Thursday, bringing aid workers to the war-ravaged Tigray region but not the food supplies that are desperately needed to prevent famine.
About 30 aid workers landed in the Tigrayan capital of Mekele on the first passenger plane to arrive since commercial flights were halted on June 24 amid a military offensive, said Michael Dunford of the UN’s World Food Programme.
Mr Dunford said he was “enormously relieved” that flights were again possible into Tigray, where about 900,000 civilians are facing famine after eight months of fighting between rebels, government forces and others.
But aid teams are struggling to bring food, fuel and medicine into the region after Tigrayan rebels in recent weeks pushed Ethiopian government forces out.
“The UN flights will operate twice a week, facilitating the regular movement of humanitarian personnel into and out of Tigray” from Addis Ababa, said UN spokeswoman Florencia Soto Nino-Martinez.
“Despite this positive development, the humanitarian response in the region continues to be challenged by a lack of humanitarian supplies, limited communication services and no commercial supply chain.”
A WFP convoy of more than 200 vehicles was on Thursday waiting for security clearance before heading to Tigray from Semera city, the capital of neighbouring Afar state.
The agency has been on high alert since Sunday, when a 10-vehicle convoy bound for Tigray was attacked some 115km from Semera.
The road through Afar has in recent days become a front line between pro-government forces and the Tigrayan rebels.
At least 20 civilians have been killed and tens of thousands displaced in heavy clashes there.
The fighting shows that the conflict could expand well beyond Tigray, where thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands forced to flee their homes, the UN says.
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray last November, backed by forces from Eritrea and allied militias, to detain and disarm leaders of the region's then-ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front.
Mr Abiy, a Nobel peace laureate, declared victory in late November after government forces took Mekele. But last month, pro-Front forces retook the city and are now pushing south-east into Afar.