Exclusive: U.S. concerned over Turkey’s drone sales to conflict-hit Ethiopia

By Jonathan Spicer, Giulia Paravicini and Orhan Coskun

ISTANBUL/ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – U.S. authorities have taken issue with Turkey over its sales of armed drones to Ethiopia, where two sources familiar with the matter said there was mounting evidence the government had used the weapons against rebel fighters.

Washington has “profound humanitarian concerns” over the sales, which could contravene U.S. restrictions on arms to Addis Ababa, a senior Western official said.

The year-long war between Ethiopia’s government and the leadership of the northern Tigray region, among Africa’s bloodiest conflicts, has killed thousands of civilians and displaced millions.

A State Department spokesman said U.S. Horn of Africa envoy Jeffrey Feltman “raised reports of armed drone use in Ethiopia and the attendant risk of civilian harm” during a visit to Turkey last week.

A senior Turkish official said Washington conveyed its discomfort at a few meetings, while Ethiopia’s military and government did not respond to detailed requests for comment.

Turkey, which is selling drones to several countries in Europe, Africa and Asia, has dismissed criticism that it plays a destabilizing role in Africa and has said it is in touch with all sides in Ethiopia to urge negotiations.

Last week the United Nations agreed to set up an independent investigation into rights abuses in Ethiopia, a move strongly opposed by its government.

Tigrayan rebel forces said on Monday they were withdrawing from some northern regions after government advances and, in a letter to the U.N., called for a no-fly zone for drones and other hostile aircraft over Tigray.

The U.S. State Department clamped down in May on exports of defense products for Ethiopia’s armed forces.

In September, the White House authorized sanctions on those engaged, even indirectly, in policies that threaten stability, expand the crisis or disrupt humanitarian assistance there, though there has been no indication of any such imminent action against Turkey.

The U.S. Treasury, which has broad economic sanctions authority under that executive order, declined to comment on whether sanctions could apply to Turkey.

The senior Turkish official said the foreign ministry examined how the drone sales might impact U.S. foreign policy as part of 2022 budget planning.

“The United States has conveyed its discomfort with Turkey’s drone sales …but Turkey will continue to follow the policies it set in this area,” the person told Reuters.

A second senior Turkish official, from the defense ministry, said Ankara had no intention of meddling in any country’s domestic affairs.

Turkish defense exports to Ethiopia surged to almost $95 million in the first 11 months of 2021, from virtually nothing last year, according to Exporters’ Assembly data.

DRONES IN ACTION

Ethiopian government soldiers interviewed by Reuters near Gashena, a hillside town close to the war’s front, said a recent government offensive succeeded following an influx of reinforcements and the use of drones and airstrikes to target Tigrayan positions.

A Reuters team spotted destroyed tanks and armored anti-aircraft trucks there.

A foreign military official based in Ethiopia said satellite imagery and other evidence gave “clear indications” that drones were being used, and estimated up to 20 were operating. It was unclear how many might be Turkish-made.

“Surveillance drones are having a greater impact …and being very helpful,” the person said, adding the guerrilla-warfare nature of the conflict made armed drones less useful.

Asked whether foreign countries had also supplied drone operators, the official said: “I know Turkish personnel were here at one point.”

Turkish and Ethiopian officials have not publicly confirmed the drones sale, which Reuters first reported in October, and Turkey’s foreign ministry did not respond to a request for further details.

It said last week that U.S. envoy Feltman and Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal had discussed developments in Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan.

Ethiopia has also bought drones from the United Arab Emirates, which did not respond to a request for comment about possible U.S. concerns. Feltman was also scheduled to visit the UAE earlier this month.

TURKISH EXPANSION

Under President Tayyip Erdogan, Ankara has poured military equipment into Africa and the Middle East, including training of armed forces in Somalia, where it has a base.

The Turkish military used its Bayraktar TB2 drones last year with success in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, prompting interest from buyers globally in a market led by U.S., Chinese and Israeli manufacturers.

In October, a Turkish foreign ministry spokesman said Ethiopia was free to procure drones from anywhere. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last week that engagement with Africa was based on mutual benefit.

NATO allies Washington and Ankara have strained ties over several issues including the Turkish purchase of Russian missile defenses, and U.S. support for Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.

The State Department spokesperson said Feltman had underscored that “now is the time for all outside actors to press for negotiations and end the war” in Ethiopia.

The Western official, who requested anonymity, said Ankara had responded to U.S. concerns by saying it attaches humanitarian provisions to the Ethiopia deal and requires signed undertakings outlining how drones will be used.

(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay in Ankara, Stephen Grey in Gashena, Ethiopia, Humeyra Pamuk and Daphne Psaledakis in Washington, and Katharine Houreld in Nairobi; Editing by John Stonestreet)

U.N. suspends food distribution in two towns in Ethiopia after looting

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The World Food Program (WFP) has suspended food distribution in Ethiopia’s Kombolcha and Dessie towns after looting of supplies that staff were unable to stop due to intimidation, including being held at gunpoint, the United Nations said on Wednesday.

U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said a large quantity of humanitarian food supplies, including nutritional items for malnourished children, were stolen and looted in Kombolcha in the Amhara region.

“The small-scale theft of food escalated into mass looting of warehouses across Kombolcha in recent days, reportedly by elements of the Tigrayan forces and some members of the local population,” Dujarric told reporters.

“Such harassment of humanitarian staff by armed forces is unacceptable. It undermines the ability of the United Nations and all of our humanitarian partners to deliver assistance when it is most needed,” he added.

Government spokesperson Legesse Tulu and military spokesperson Colonel Getnet Adane did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The looting and intimidation will worsen malnutrition and prolong food insecurity in northern Ethiopia, where an estimated 9.4 million people across the Tigray, Amhara and Afar regions need critical food assistance, Dujarric said.

Three WFP trucks used for humanitarian operations in Amhara were commandeered by military personnel and used for their own purposes this week, Dujarric said. He called for all parties to the conflict to respect and protect humanitarian relief personnel.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said that the humanitarian catastrophe in northern Ethiopia remains an “absolute priority” for the United States. Price repeated calls for the parties to engage in negotiations to end the conflict.

“On the one hand we are encouraging, but also on the other hand we do have a set of sticks,” Price said, referring to punitive measures that can be used, like the sanctions imposed on the Eritrean military last month.

The year-long war between the federal government and the leadership of the northern region of Tigray has killed thousands of civilians and forced millions to flee their homes.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis and Simon Lewis; Additional Reporting by Maggie Fick in Nairobi; Editing by William Maclean, Lisa Shumaker and Grant McCool)

Calls for ceasefire in Ethiopia grow amid deepening conflict

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) -African and Western nations called for an immediate ceasefire in Ethiopia on Thursday after Tigrayan forces from the country’s north said they made advances towards the capital this week.

The U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, arrived in Addis Ababa to press for a halt to military operations and a start to ceasefire talks.

African Union Commission Chair Moussa Faki Mahamat said he met Feltman to discuss efforts towards dialogue and political solutions to the conflict, which pits the central government against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and its allies.

The European Union and the East African bloc the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) joined the chorus of bodies calling for a ceasefire. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni announced an IGAD meeting on Nov. 16 to discuss the war.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta urged the rival parties to lay down their arms and find a path to peace.

“The fighting must stop!” he said in a statement.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he had spoken to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Wednesday and offered to help create the conditions for a dialogue.

The government brushed off the calls for talks, said new recruits were heeding the call to fight on the government side and accused the Tigrayan forces of exaggerating their territorial gains.

“We are fighting an existential war,” it said in a statement issued by its communication service.

Abiy’s government declared a state of emergency on Tuesday as the Tigrayan forces threatened to push forward to Addis Ababa.

ADDIS ARRESTS

TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda said on Wednesday TPLF troops were in the town of Kemise in Amhara state, 325 km (200 miles) from the capital. Government and military spokespeople did not return calls seeking comment on his account.

The U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa authorized the voluntary departure of some staff and family members because of the intensifying hostilities. Washington said on Wednesday it was “gravely concerned” about the situation and called for ceasefire talks and a halt to military operations.

The year-long conflict has killed thousands of people, forced more than two million more from their homes and left 400,000 people in Tigray facing famine.

The United States, the European Union and the United Nations said a de facto government blockade in Tigray must end to avert a large-scale famine. The government had denied blocking aid.

No humanitarian convoys have entered Tigray since Oct. 18 and no fuel to aid the humanitarian response has entered since early August, according to the United Nations.

Streets and shops in Addis Ababa, a city of around five million people, were busy as usual on Thursday morning, though some residents said there was a feeling of uneasy calm.

“There are rumors about the approach of the rebels. People debate about the conflict, most of the people accuse the government for what happened,” said one man, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Police had arrested “many people” in Addis Ababa since the government declared the state of emergency, police spokesperson Fasika Fanta said on Thursday.

Residents told Reuters on Wednesday many Tigrayans had been arrested. Fasika said arrests were not based on ethnicity.

YEAR-OLD CONFLICT

“We are only arresting those who are directly or indirectly supporting the illegal terrorist group,” Fasika said. “This includes moral, financial and propaganda support.”

He also said many people were registering weapons at police stations around the city in line with a government directive issued on Tuesday for people to prepare to defend their neighborhoods.

“Some are even coming with bombs and heavy weapons. We are registering those too,” he said.

Government spokesperson Legesse Tulu did not respond to requests for comment.

The conflict started last November when forces loyal to the TPLF, including some soldiers, seized military bases in Tigray. In response, Abiy sent more troops to the northern region.

The TPLF had dominated national politics for nearly three decades but lost much influence when Abiy took office in 2018.

The TPLF accused him of centralizing power at the expense of regional states – which Abiy denies.

TPLF spokesman Getachew on Wednesday pledged to minimize casualties in any drive to take Addis Ababa.

“We don’t intend to shoot at civilians and we don’t want bloodshed. If possible we would like the process to be peaceful,” he said.

A regional analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the TPLF was likely to hold off on any advance on Addis Ababa until they secured the highway running from neighboring Djibouti to the capital.

Abiy’s spokesperson, Billene Seyoum, accused the international media of being “overly alarmist” in its coverage of Ethiopia.

“Perpetuating terrorist propaganda as truth from offices far off and detached from the ground is highly unethical,” she said in a tweet.

(Reporting by Addis Ababa newsroom; Additional reporting by George Obulutsa and Ayenat Mersie in Nairobi; Writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel, Angus MacSwan and Andrew Heavens)

Ethiopian leader, marking year of war, says he will bury foes ‘with our blood’

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) -Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed pledged on Wednesday to bury his government’s enemies “with our blood” as he marked the start of the war in the Tigray region one year ago.

Abiy, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, was speaking a day after a state of emergency was declared in the country and with Tigrayan forces threatening to advance on the capital Addis Ababa.

“The pit which is dug will be very deep, it will be where the enemy is buried, not where Ethiopia disintegrates,” he said in a speech at an event at the military’s headquarters in Addis Ababa.

“We will bury this enemy with our blood and bones and make the glory of Ethiopia high again,” said Abiy, who won the Nobel prize for settling Ethiopia’s longtime conflict with Eritrea.

A moment of silence was observed at the candle-lit ceremony to commemorate those killed on Nov, 3, 2020, when forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – including some soldiers – seized military bases in Tigray. In response, Abiy sent more troops to the northern region.

The TPLF led Ethiopia’s ruling coalition for nearly 30 years but lost control when Abiy took office in 2018 following years of anti-government protests.

Relations with the TPLF soured after they accused him of centralizing power at the expense of Ethiopia’s regional states – an accusation Abiy denies.

The conflict in Africa’s second most populous country has killed thousands of people, forced more than two million from their homes, and left 400,000 people in Tigray facing famine.

A joint investigation by the United Nations and Ethiopia’s state-appointed human rights commission published on Wednesday found that all sides fighting in the war had committed violations that may amount to war crimes.

The African Union said on Wednesday that AU chair Moussa Faki Mahamat was following the escalation in Ethiopia with deep concern. He urged the parties to engage in dialogue.

Ethiopia’s neighbor Kenya, meanwhile, said its police had heightened security along the border.

Will Davison, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank, said the Tigrayan forces’ gains had increased the pressure on Abiy government, as reflected by the State of Emergency.

“Right now, it looks difficult for the federal coalition to hold off the Tigray forces’ advance, and some of their leaders have recently said that at this late stage they are not looking to negotiate with Abiy,” he said.

TPLF spokesperson Getachew Reda did not respond to calls to his satellite phone on Wednesday.

A regional analyst in touch with the parties to the war and who spoke on condition of anonymity told Reuters the TPLF was likely to hold off on any advance on Addis Ababa until they secure the highway running from neighboring Djibouti to the capital.

That requires seizing the town of Mille. On Tuesday, Getachew told Reuters that Tigrayan forces were closing in on Mille.

ARRESTS

Abiy’s government imposed a six-month state of emergency on Monday with immediate effect.

The order came after the TPLF claimed to have captured several towns in recent days and said it might march on Addis Ababa, about 380 km (235 miles) to the south of their forward positions.

The state of emergency enables the government to order citizens of military age to undergo training and accept military duty.

It also allows authorities to arbitrarily arrest anyone suspected of collaborating with “terrorist groups” with a court order and detain them for the duration of the state of emergency, according to the proclamation.

The government designated the TPLF a terrorist group in May.

After the emergency was announced, there were scattered reports of arrests of ethnic Tigrayans in the capital.

A woman at a private health clinic in the city told Reuters she had witnessed four doctors and one nurse, all ethnic Tigrayans, taken away by the police on Tuesday evening.

A resident told Reuters he saw police in the central Bole district randomly stopping people on the street and asking them to show their government IDs, which list ethnic identity.

“I saw three people arrested,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

Another woman told Reuters that her husband, an engineer, was arrested by police while walking in the street speaking on his phone in his native Tigrinya language.

Two other people told Reuters there had been a number of arrests of Tigrayans on Tuesday in the districts of Bole and Lemi Kura.

The Addis Ababa police and a government spokesperson did not respond to phone calls requesting comment.

Two Addis Ababa residents told Reuters that they would heed Abiy’s call to join the military’s fight against the Tigrayan forces.

“We all want to have a country, so we all should respond to the call,” said Merkeb Shiferaw, 28, an engineer. Some people in Addis Ababa were panicking over the situation but the city remained peaceful, he said.

(Reporting by Addis Ababa newsroomAdditional reporting and writing by Maggie FickAdditional reporting by Ayenat Mersie and Duncan MiririEditing by Angus MacSwan and Mark Heinrich)

Ethiopian families fleeing fighting describe hunger, rape in Amhara

By Giulia Paravicini, Dawit Endeshaw and Maggie Fick

DESSIE, Ethiopia (Reuters) – The pictures on her phone are all that Ethiopian mother Habtam Akele has left of her three-year-old daughter Saba. The girl died of malnutrition last month before the family was able to flee south, deeper into Ethiopia’s Amhara region.

“They (doctors) told me she has been severely affected by malnutrition and they cannot help. Then they gave me some syrup and tablets. She passed away exactly a week later,” Habtam told Reuters earlier this month, clutching her surviving nine-month-old baby.

Habtam is among an influx of thousands of Amhara families fleeing to the town of Dessie from fighting further north. Officials warn the already overcrowded makeshift camps, where displaced people sleep in rows in school classrooms, will fill further after renewed clashes.

Conflict erupted between the ruling party of the rebellious northern region of Tigray – the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – and the Ethiopian central government last November.

In July, the TPLF pushed into the neighboring region of Amhara, whose forces had fought alongside the military against the Tigrayans, as well as into the region of Afar.

The Tigrayan advance forced around 250,000 people to flee their homes in Amhara, the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in September.

On Monday, the TPLF said the Ethiopian military had launched an offensive to try to dislodge the Tigrayan fighters from Amhara, following a barrage of air strikes reported last week.

The military and government have not answered calls seeking information on the offensive, but a post on the military’s official Facebook page said “they (the TPLF) have opened war on all fronts” and said the military was inflicting heavy casualties.

Diplomats are worried that renewed fighting will further destabilize Ethiopia, a nation of 109 million people, and deepen hunger in Tigray and the surrounding regions.

Habtam said there was little food in the areas under Tigrayan control and that Tigrayan forces took scarce medicines from local pharmacies.

Getachew Reda, the spokesman for the TPLF, told Reuters that Tigrayan forces had not looted pharmacies that supplied local populations and had set up a generator to alleviate water shortages in Habtam’s area.

Reuters had no way of independently verifying Habtam’s account since her home, to the north in Kobo, is off-limits to journalists due to fighting and phone connections to the area are down.

ARMED MAN

The United Nations has said that the Ethiopian government is only letting a trickle of food trucks and no medicines or fuel into Tigray despite estimates that hundreds of thousands of people are in famine conditions there – a charge the government denies. Hospitals there have run out of crucial medicines.

Both sides accuse each other of committing atrocities. Reuters has previously documented gang-rapes and mass killings of civilians in Tigray, and some Amhara residents told Reuters that Tigrayans were also committing abuses in territory they control. Both sides have denied the allegations.

Another woman at the camps told Reuters that she had been raped by an armed man speaking Tigrinya, the language of Tigray, in an area of Amhara under Tigrayan control. Saada, 28, told Reuters she had been attacked in her house in Mersa, 80 km north of Dessie, by the armed man in plain clothes. She did not recall the exact date but said it was around the end of August.

“He said to me ‘We left our houses both to kill and to die. I am from the jungle so, I have all the right to do whatever I want. I can even kill you’ and he raised his gun to me and threatened to kill me,” she said. “Then he raped me.”

She provided a card showing she had visited Dessie Comprehensive Specialized Hospital for treatment. She asked Reuters not to use her full name to protect her from reprisals.

Leul Mesfin, the medical director of Dessie hospital declined to answer questions about civilian injuries or rapes, or individual cases, because he said he did not trust foreign journalists.

When asked about the rape, Getachew of the TPLF said any reported incident would be investigated and that the actions of one man should not implicate Tigrayan forces in general.

“I can’t vouch for each and every off-breed idiot who masquerades as a fighter,” he said. “There are millions of (men with) guns there.”

(Maggie Fick reported from Nairobi; Editing by Katharine Houreld and Alison Williams)

Tigray forces killed 120 civilians in village in Amhara – Ethiopia officials

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) -Rebellious forces from the Tigray region killed 120 civilians over two days in a village in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, local officials told Reuters on Wednesday.

The killings in a village 10 km (six miles) from the town of Dabat took place on Sept. 1 and 2, said Sewnet Wubalem, the local administrator in Dabat, and Chalachew Dagnew, spokesperson of the nearby city of Gondar.

A spokesperson for Tigrayan forces did not immediately respond to a request for comment on what is the first report of Tigrayan forces killing a large number of civilians since seizing territory in Amhara. Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes in the region as Tigrayan forces have advanced.

“So far we have recovered 120 bodies. They were all innocent farmers. But we think the number might be higher. There are people who are missing,” Sewnet, the local administrator, told Reuters by phone.

Chalachew, the Gondar city spokesperson, said he had visited the burial area in the village and that children, women and elderly were among the dead.

He said the killings were during the Tigrayan forces’ “short presence” in the area, and it was now under the control of the Ethiopian federal army.

Reuters was unable to independently verify the accounts.

Getachew Reda, spokesperson for the Tigrayan forces, has previously denied to Reuters that the forces have committed crimes against civilians while seizing territory in Amhara over the past month.

HUMANITARIAN CRISIS

War broke out 10 months ago between Ethiopia’s federal troops and forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which controls the Tigray region.

Since then, thousands have been killed and more than 2 million have fled their homes. Fighting spread in July from the Tigray region into the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar, also in the country’s north.

Amid the conflict, relations between the ethnic Amharas and Tigrayans have deteriorated sharply.

During the war, regional forces and militiamen from the Amhara region have sought to settle a decades-old land dispute between the Amhara and Tigray regions.

Amhara forces have seized control of western parts of Tigray and driven tens of thousands of Tigrayans from their homes. Though the Tigrayan forces have seized back most of the Tigray region, they have not taken back the heavily militarized and contested area of western Tigray.

The U.S. government’s humanitarian agency said last week Tigrayan forces had in recent weeks looted its warehouses in parts of Amhara.

Responding on Twitter to the agency’s statement on looting, Getachew Reda, the Tigrayan forces’ spokesperson, wrote: “While we cannot vouch for every unacceptable behavior of off-grid fighters in such matters, we have evidence that such looting is mainly orchestrated by local individuals & groups.”

The U.N. has said a de facto aid blockade on the Tigray region, where some 400,000 people are already in famine conditions, has worsened an already dire humanitarian crisis.

The Ethiopian government has repeatedly denied allegations by the U.N. and Western governments that it is deliberately impeding the delivery of lifesaving assistance. On Sunday, a U.N. convoy of trucks bearing food and other aid was permitted to enter Tigray for the first time since Aug. 20.

(Reporting by Addis Ababa newsroom, Writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Jon Boyle and Timothy Heritage)

U.S. agency says Tigrayan forces looted aid warehouses in Ethiopia’s Amhara region

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Forces from Ethiopia’s Tigray region in recent weeks looted warehouses belonging to the U.S. government’s humanitarian agency in the Amhara region, USAID’s Ethiopia director said on Tuesday.

War broke out in the mountainous region last November between Ethiopian troops and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which controls the region. The conflict has killed thousands and caused a humanitarian crisis.

After retaking control of most of Tigray in late June and early July, Tigrayan forces pushed into the neighboring Afar and Amhara regions, displacing several hundred thousand more people from their homes.

“We do have proof that several of our warehouses have been looted and completely emptied in the areas, particularly in Amhara, where TPLF soldiers have gone into,” the director Sean Jones told state broadcaster EBC in a televised interview.

“I do believe that the TPLF has been very opportunistic,” he added.

Representatives for the TPLF and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Up to 900,000 people in Tigray are already in famine conditions, while five million others are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance, USAID estimates.

For the first time in nine months of war, aid workers will run out of food this week to deliver to millions of people who are going hungry, the head of USAID said last week, blaming the government for restricting access.

The Tigrayan forces and the federal government have repeatedly traded accusations of hampering the flow of aid.

(Reporting by Nairobi newsroom; Writing by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Maggie Fick and Grant McCool)

U.S. aid chief says emergency food in Ethiopia’s Tigray to run out this week

By Maggie Fick

NAIROBI (Reuters) -For the first time in nine months of war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, aid workers will run out of food this week to deliver to millions of people who are going hungry, the head of the U.S. government’s humanitarian agency said, blaming the government for restricting access.

“USAID and its partners as well as other humanitarian organizations have depleted their stores of food items warehoused in Tigray,” Samantha Power, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), said in a statement late on Thursday.

“People in Tigray are starving with up to 900,000 in famine conditions and more than five million in desperate need of humanitarian assistance,” Power said. “This shortage is not because food is unavailable, but because the Ethiopian Government is obstructing humanitarian aid and personnel, including land convoys and air access.”

War broke out in November between Ethiopian troops and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which controls the region. The conflict has killed thousands and sparked a humanitarian crisis in one of the world’s poorest regions.

Billene Seyoum, spokesperson for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, did not respond to a request for comment. At a news conference on Friday, she did not refer to Power’s statement but dismissed allegations that the Ethiopian government is “purposely blocking humanitarian assistance”, saying the government is concerned about security.

“It is important to really address this continuing rhetoric because that is not the case,” Billene said. “Security is first and foremost a priority that cannot be compromised, it is a volatile area so in that regards there is going to be continuous checks and processes.”

On Thursday, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for an immediate ceasefire and unrestricted aid access in Tigray. The U.N. warned last month that more than 100,000 children in Tigray could die of hunger.

Power’s statement said that 100 trucks carrying food and life-saving supplies need to be arriving each day in Tigray to meet the humanitarian needs there. As of a few days ago, only about 320 trucks had arrived, less than 7% of what is required, it said.

The Ethiopian government declared a unilateral ceasefire in June after Tigrayan forces re-captured the regional capital Mekelle and retook most of the region. The Tigrayan forces dismissed this as a “joke” and issued preconditions for truce talks.

(Reporting by Maggie Fick; Additional reporting by Ayenat Mersie and Giulia Paravicini; Editing by John Stonestreet and Frances Kerry)

More than 100,000 children in Ethiopia’s Tigray could die of hunger- UNICEF

By Giulia Paravicini and Stephanie Nebehay

WUKRO, Ethiopia/GENEVA (Reuters) -The United Nations children’s agency said on Friday that more than 100,000 children in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray could suffer life-threatening malnutrition in the next 12 months, a 10-fold increase to normal numbers.

UNICEF spokesperson Marixie Mercado said that one-in-two pregnant and breastfeeding women screened in Tigray were acutely malnourished.

“Our worst fears about the health and well-being of children… are being confirmed,” she told a briefing in Geneva.

Spokespeople for the prime minister and a government task force on Tigray – where fighting between rebellious regional and federal forces have continued since November – did not immediately respond to requests for comment on UNICEF’s statement.

Babies like 20-month-old Aammanuel Merhawi are suffering the most. He is a third below normal weight for his age. His feverish eyes glisten and his ribs are visible as he heaves, vomiting supplementary food fed through a nasal tube. All are signs of severe malnutrition.

“My milk dried up,” his mother, Brkti Gebrehiwot, told Reuters at Wukro General Hospital in northern Tigray on July 11.

FAMINE CONDITIONS

Aid agencies say they are about to run out of the formula used to treat 4,000 severely malnourished children every month.

At least three children have died in Wukro hospital since February, nurse Tsehaynesh Gebrehiwot said.

She provided their medical records: four-month-old Awet Gebreslassie weighed 2.6 kilogramnes (5.7 lb), a third of normal weight; one-year-old Robel Gebrezgiher weighed 2 kgs, less than a quarter of normal weight; and Kisanet Hogus, also a year old, weighed 5 kgs – just over half of normal weight.

All died within days of admission.

In Adigrat General Hospital further north, Reuters saw medical records confirming the death of three more malnourished children.

Doctors in both hospitals said they saw between four to 10 severely malnourished children monthly before the conflict erupted in November. Now numbers have more than doubled.

The U.N. says that around 400,000 people are living in famine conditions in Tigray, and more than 90% of the population needs emergency food aid.

In a statement on Thursday evening, the Ethiopian government blamed Tigray regional forces for blocking aid and said it had stockpiled reserve wheat in the region. It gave no details on the stockpile’s location or plans for distribution.

The TPLF was unavailable for comment but has previously said it welcomes aid.

The U.N. says Tigray needs 100 trucks of food daily to prevent mass starvation; only one 50-truck convoy has gotten through in the past month.

(Reporting by Giulia Paravicini in Wukro and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva. Editing by Katharine Houreld and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

Three more regions reinforce Ethiopia army, Amhara against Tigray forces

By Dawit Endeshaw

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Three more Ethiopian regions are sending soldiers to reinforce the national army in its fight against forces from the northern region of Tigray, regional officials said, widening a conflict that has so far largely affected the north.

Officials from Oromiya, Sidama, and the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples’ Region said their forces had joined the army, known as the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), which withdrew from most of Tigray late in June.

A fourth region, Amhara, has already been locked in conflict with Tigray since the war erupted in November. Both Amhara and Tigray claim the fertile fields of western and southern Tigray.

In the past week, Tigrayan forces have retaken much of the south, but the west is heavily militarized.

Western Tigray has long been home to large populations of both Tigrayans and Amhara, and fresh fighting in the area could drive another wave of refugees from a conflict that has already forced 2 million from their homes.

“We have already deployed our special forces and they will join ENDF. Our people will also support with materials. It is the ENDF that is in charge where the special forces will be deployed,” said Oromiya Region spokesperson Getachew Balcha.

“If needed we will deploy more,” he told Reuters.

The Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples’ Region also confirmed it sent soldiers.

“Close to 300 to 400 special forces were sent this week. I think they will be deployed on the western front,” said an official from the region’s communications office on condition of anonymity.

A Sidama official who did not want to be named also confirmed the region’s forces had gone to reinforce the national army.

Pictures posted on the state-run regional Amhara Media Corporation showed soldiers from Sidama posing with residents of the town of Debre Markos in Amhara.

END OF CEASEFIRE

This month, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed told parliament Ethiopia could mobilize about 100,000 soldiers from regional special forces in less than a week.

His remarks signaled an end to the government’s unilateral ceasefire, announced as troops pulled out of Tigray’s capital Mekelle. Tigrayan leaders derided the ceasefire as a way to cover up battlefield losses and the capture of thousands of prisoners of war.

Tigray’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), has said it will continue to fight until it restores Tigray’s pre-war boundaries and the government stops blockading the region. Currently most routes into Tigray are blocked and only one convoy of food aid has been allowed in.

Tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees are also caught in the middle of the fighting in two camps taken over by Tigrayan forces this week. A refugee told Reuters that two men had already been killed and three refugees injured in the fighting.

(Writing by George Obulutsa; Editing by Alex Richardson)