Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Dec 2 – Ethiopia has granted the United Nations access to deliver aid to the northern region of Tigray, following weeks of lobbying amid military operations there, according to an agreement seen by AFP on Wednesday.
The agreement, signed by Ethiopia’s peace minister, comes four weeks after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent in troops and warplanes in a campaign targeting leaders of the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
Thousands have died in subsequent fighting, according to the International Crisis Group, while tens of thousands have fled into neighbouring Sudan.
The UN has been warning of a possible humanitarian catastrophe within Tigray, though a communications blackout has made it difficult to assess conditions on the ground.
“We signed an agreement giving unconditional access for humanitarian assistance wherever people are in need” in Tigray, a senior UN official told AFP Wednesday.
A second senior UN official also said it applied to all of the region’s roughly six million population.
Two assessment missions launched on Wednesday and more are expected soon, the officials said.
The text of the agreement states that “the UN and humanitarian partners” can access “vulnerable populations in (government)-administered areas in Tigray and bordering areas of Amhara and Afar regions”.
Abiy declared victory on Saturday night, saying that military operations in Tigray were “completed” — but the TPLF has vowed to fight on.
Senior Tigrayan official Wondimu Asamnew claimed Wednesday that federal forces were “encountering low-scale warfare all over Tigray” and that pro-TPLF fighters would launch a “full-scale offensive… in the near future”.
Wondimu also said in a statement that the TPLF had carried out a “strategic retreat” without sustaining heavy losses.
It is unclear if the government has control over the entire region, raising questions about whether the UN will actually have full access.
A spokeswoman for Abiy’s office did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
– Food running out –
Before the fighting began, around 600,000 people living in Tigray depended on food handouts, among them 96,000 Eritrean refugees.
The agreement notes that the region was also home to 42,000 malnourished women and children as well as 100,000 internally displaced people.
Food, fuel and cash are in short supply, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, while the International Committee of the Red Cross says basic medical equipment is lacking.
On Tuesday the UN refugee agency warned that Eritrean refugees in Tigray were believed to have run out of food, saying concerns for their welfare were “growing by the hour”.
Meanwhile communications are returning to parts of Tigray.
Ethio Telecom, the country’s monopoly telecommunications provider, said Wednesday that services had partially resumed in cities including Humera, Dansha, Mai-Kadra and Mai-Tsebri.
It said services had fully resumed in the southern Tigray town of Alamata, and that officials were “working to restore telecom services in all areas of the region”.
– Caretaker administration –
Abiy intends to establish a caretaker administration in Tigray headed by Mulu Nega, formerly a senior official in Ethiopia’s higher education ministry.
On Wednesday Mulu announced administrators had been installed in the Tigray town of Shire, according to a report by the state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate.
Analysts warn, however, that Mulu’s administration could meet resistance from the Tigrayan population.
The TPLF dominated Ethiopian politics for nearly three decades before anti-government protests swept Abiy to power in 2018.
Since then TPLF leaders have complained of being removed from top positions, targeted in corruption prosecutions and broadly scapegoated for the country’s woes.
Tensions escalated dramatically after Tigray went ahead with regional elections in September, defying a nationwide ban on polls because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Federal officials declared the Tigray elections “illegal”, while the TPLF dismissed Abiy as an illegitimate ruler.
Ethiopia’s electoral board has said it expects to hold national elections in mid-2021.
Abiy met on Wednesday with political party and civil society representatives to discuss those preparations, according to his office.
Those in attendance discussed issues including “not rushing to elections without putting the necessary foundations in place” and “ensuring the primacy of rule of law preceding the elections”.
No details were provided on how these considerations might affect the timeline.
The delayed elections are seen as a critical milestone for the democratic reforms Abiy promised to deliver when he took office.