Tigray mercy mission departs as famine deadline looms

A 44-vehicle convoy offers last hope for famine-stricken region, where supplies dry up on Friday

A woman holds her malnourished daughter at a medical clinic in Tigray. AP
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A humanitarian convoy departed the Ethiopian city of Semera on Wednesday for the northern Tigray region, where fighting has closed roads and left hundreds of thousands on the brink of famine, the UN says.

UN spokesman Farhan Haq said the 44-vehicle mission was headed through Afar state into war-torn Tigray, where World Food Programme (WFP) officials say supplies will dry up as soon as Friday.

Aid lorries have not been able to reach the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle since July 12, and the only passable road into the region has been closed since July 19 amid fighting between armed groups and after an attack on WFP vehicles, Mr Haq said.

“An estimated 500-600 trucks of relief items are needed every week to meet mounting humanitarian needs,” Mr Haq told reporters on Wednesday.

“A lack of supplies, fuel and communication equipment is expected to effectively halt humanitarian response in two weeks.”

Another 150 lorries remain on standby in Semera “pending security clearances” from Ethiopia's government in Addis Ababa and the armed militias active in the region, added Mr Haq.

Humanitarian flights resumed to Tigray on July 22, but aid teams have struggled to bring supplies there even after Tigrayan rebels pushed Ethiopian government forces out of the region in a stunning reversal of the conflict.

The road connecting the Tigray and Afar regions has become a front line in the fighting between Tigrayan rebels and pro-government forces. Dozens of civilians have been killed and tens of thousands displaced in heavy clashes there.

The WFP says it is “extremely concerned” about famine in Tigray, where severe shortages of food and supplies are taking their toll, and has called for unimpeded access to four million people facing hunger.

Sudanese officials on Wednesday said that some 5,000 Ethiopian refugees were likely to cross into Sudan in the coming days, the latest wave of those fleeing fighting in the Tigray and Amhara regions.

This week, 3,000 Ethiopians crossed into neighbouring Sudan, taking the total number of Ethiopian refugees in the country to about 60,000, an official in Sudan's eastern Kassala region told AFP.

The UN refugee agency on Tuesday said it was worried about 24,000 Eritrean refugees in two camps in Tigray, saying they had been cut off from aid and could run out of food and drinking water.

US State Department spokeswoman Jalina Porter later told reporters of “attacks by military forces” affiliated with Tigray’s main rebel group against Eritrean refugees and called for the intimidation and attacks to stop.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, sent troops into Tigray last November to topple the region's ruling party, backed by Eritrean forces and Amhara militiamen, a move he said was in response to attacks on army camps.

Fighting has already killed thousands of people and pushed as many as 900,000 more into famine.

Updated: July 29, 2021, 6:50 AM