About 350,000 people in Ethiopia’s Tigray in famine – U.N. analysis

By Giulia Paravicini and Michelle Nichols

ADDIS ABABA/NEW YORK (Reuters) -More than 350,000 people in Ethiopia’s Tigray are suffering famine conditions with millions more at risk, according to an analysis by United Nations agencies and aid groups that blamed conflict for the worst catastrophic food crisis in a decade.

“There is famine now in Tigray,” U.N. aid chief Mark Lowcock said on Thursday after the release of the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) analysis, which the IPC noted has not been endorsed by the Ethiopian government.

“The number of people in famine conditions … is higher than anywhere in the world, at any moment since a quarter million Somalis lost their lives in 2011,” Lowcock said.

Most of the 5.5 million people in Tigray need food aid. Fighting broke out in the region in November between government troops and the region’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Troops from neighboring Eritrea also entered the conflict to support the Ethiopian government.

The violence has killed thousands of civilians and forced more than 2 million from their homes in the mountainous region.

The most extreme warning by the IPC – a scale used by U.N. agencies, regional bodies and aid groups to determine food insecurity – is phase 5, which starts with a catastrophe warning and rises to a declaration of famine in a region.

The IPC said more than 350,000 people in Tigray are in phase 5 catastrophe. This means households are experiencing famine conditions, but less than 20% of the population is affected and deaths and malnutrition have not reached famine thresholds.

“This severe crisis results from the cascading effects of conflict, including population displacements, movement restrictions, limited humanitarian access, loss of harvest and livelihood assets, and dysfunctional or non-existent markets,” the IPC analysis found.

For famine to be declared at least 20% of the population must be suffering extreme food shortages, with one in three children acutely malnourished and two people out of every 10,000 dying daily from starvation or from malnutrition and disease.

‘NIGHTMARE’

Famine has been declared twice in the past decade: in Somalia in 2011 and in parts of South Sudan in 2017.

“If the conflict further escalates or, for any other reason, humanitarian assistance is hampered, most areas of Tigray will be at risk of famine,” according to the IPC, which added that even if aid deliveries are stepped up, the situation is expected to worsen through September.

The Ethiopian government disputed the IPC analysis, saying food shortages are not severe and aid is being delivered.

Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman Dina Mufti told a news conference on Thursday that the government was providing food aid and help to farmers in Tigray.

“They (diplomats) are comparing it with the 1984, 1985 famine in Ethiopia,” he said. “That is not going to happen.”

But U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said a humanitarian nightmare was unfolding.

“This is not the kind of disaster that can be reversed,” she told a U.S. and European Union event on Tigray on Thursday. Referring to a previous famine in Ethiopia that killed more than 1 million people, she said: “We cannot make the same mistake twice. We cannot let Ethiopia starve. We have to act now.”

World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley said that to stop hunger from killing millions of people in Tigray there needed to be a ceasefire, unimpeded aid access and more money to expand aid operations.

According to notes of a meeting of U.N. agencies on Monday, seen by Reuters, the IPC analysis could be worse as “they did not include those in Amhara-controlled areas” in western Tigray.

Mitiku Kassa, head of Ethiopia’s National Disaster Risk Management Commission, said on Wednesday: “We don’t have any food shortage.”

(Additional reporting by Dawit Endeshaw; Writing by Michelle Nichols and Katharine Houreld; Editing by Mary Milliken, Peter Cooney, Angus MacSwan and Jonathan Oatis)

Death toll from Colombia protests rises; U.N., EU call for calm

By Oliver Griffin and Luis Jaime Acosta

BOGOTA (Reuters) – The United Nations and European Union on Tuesday urged calm and warned of the use of excessive force amid further protests against the administration of Colombian President Ivan Duque, while local authorities in epicenter Cali reported a further five deaths and 33 injuries.

The protests – originally called in opposition to a now-canceled tax reform – have become a broad cry for action against poverty and what demonstrators and some advocacy groups say is police violence.

The western city of Cali has become the focus of protests since they began almost a week ago and is the site of 11 of the 19 deaths confirmed by the Andean country’s human rights ombudsman on Monday.

The national police has said it will investigate more than two dozen allegations of brutality, while the defense minister has alleged illegal armed groups are infiltrating the protests to cause violence.

“Preliminarily what we know is there were five people killed (and …) 33 injured,” Carlos Rojas, security secretary of Cali told journalists on Tuesday, referring to the night before.

Some 87 people have been reported missing nationally since the protests started, according to the human rights ombudsman.

Intermittent road blockades are delaying shipments out of key Pacific port Buenaventura, according to local authorities.

The United Nation’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights urged calm and warned of police shootings.

“We are deeply alarmed at developments in the city of Cali in Colombia overnight, where police opened fire on demonstrators protesting against tax reforms,” spokesperson Marta Hurtado said in a Tuesday statement.

The European Union also called for security forces to avoid a heavy-handed response.

Protests have so far led to the withdrawal of the original reform and the resignation of Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla.

Duque has said his government will draw up another proposal – the result of consultations with lawmakers, civil society and businesses.

New Finance Minister Jose Manuel Restrepo will need to convince Colombians, many of whom have seen their incomes battered by coronavirus lockdowns, that reform is vital, former Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas told the Reuters Global Markets Forum on Tuesday.

Restrepo “has a huge challenge ahead” Cardenas said.

Anger over long-standing inequalities in the nation of 50 million was a theme of 2019 protests, while police brutality was a focus at 2020 demonstrations.

Major unions, which are planning national marches again on Wednesday, say the government has not lived up to promises of dialogue with civil society.

Marchers on Wednesday will call for a basic income guarantee, the withdrawal of a government health reform proposal and the dissolution of the ESMAD riot police.

Duque has offered military assistance to protect infrastructure and guarantee access to essential services, though mayors of cities including Bogota and Medellin said it was unnecessary.

(Reporting by Oliver Griffin and Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by Julia Symmes Cobb, Alistair Bell)

‘Descent into hell’: Kidnapping explosion terrorizes Haiti

By Andre Paultre and Sarah Marsh

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) – A wave of kidnappings is sweeping Haiti. But even in a country growing inured to horrific abductions, the case of five-year-old Olslina Janneus sparked outrage.

Olslina was snatched off the streets of the capital Port-au-Prince in late January as she was playing. The child’s corpse, bearing signs of strangulation, turned up a week later, according to her mother, Nadege Saint Hilaire, a peanut vendor who said she couldn’t pay the $4,000 ransom. Saint Hilaire’s cries filled the airwaves as she spoke to a few local radio stations seeking help raising funds to cover funeral costs.

Saint Hilaire is now in hiding after receiving death threats, she said, from the same gang that killed her daughter. “I wasn’t supposed to go to the radio to denounce what had happened,” she told Reuters.

Police in her impoverished and crime-ridden neighborhood, Martissant, told Reuters they were investigating the case.

Haiti’s epidemic of kidnappings is the latest crisis to befall this Caribbean island nation of around 11 million people, roiled by deepening political unrest and economic misery. Kidnappings last year tripled to 234 cases compared to 2019, according to official data compiled by the United Nations.

The real figures are likely much higher because many Haitians don’t report abductions, fearing retribution from criminal gangs, according to attorney Gedeon Jean, director of the nonprofit Center for Human Rights Analysis and Research in Port-au-Prince. He said the research center recorded 796 kidnappings last year.

Haiti’s national police force did not respond to a request for comment. President Jovenel Moise has said repeatedly that his government is doing all it can, and has put more resources into anti-kidnapping efforts. Still, he publicly acknowledged on April 14 that “kidnappings have become generalized” and that efforts to combat persistent insecurity have been “ineffective.”

Human rights activists and a new report from Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic allege that Moise’s government has allied itself with violent criminal gangs to maintain its grip on power and to suppress dissent. Opposition groups have called for Moise to resign and hand power to a transitional government that would delay presidential and legislative elections slated for September until the nation is stable enough to ensure a free and fair contest.

Haiti’s acting Prime Minister Claude Joseph denied those allegations and the report’s findings. He said anti-democratic forces are whipping up violence to destabilize Moise’s administration in an election year. “They are fomenting the gangs to stop there being elections,” Joseph told Reuters.

Criminals have targeted some poor people, like Saint Hilaire, for modest sums. Many more victims come from the ranks of the Haitian middle class – teachers, priests, civil servants, small business owners. Such targets aren’t rich enough to afford bodyguards but have enough assets or connections to scrape up a ransom.

In one of the most high-profile recent cases, five Catholic priests, two nuns and three laymen were kidnapped on April 11 in the commune of Croix-des-Bouquets, northeast of the capital. Four members of the group were subsequently released and six are still missing, according to an April 25 statement by the Society of Priests of St. Jacques, a French missionary society linked to four of the kidnapped priests. An official with that group declined to comment on whether a ransom was paid.

“For some time now, we have been witnessing the descent into hell of Haitian society,” the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Port-au-Prince said in a statement earlier this month.

‘KILLING THE ECONOMY’

Haiti last experienced a major surge in kidnappings and gang violence after a rebellion toppled then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, prompting the United Nations to send in a peacekeeping force.

The departure of that force in October 2019 was followed by a resurgence in gang crime, according to human-rights activists, who say kidnapping has proven lucrative at a time when Haiti’s economy is teetering.

Rights activists say politics also play a role. They allege Moise’s government has harnessed criminal groups to terrorize neighborhoods known as opposition strongholds and to quell public dissent amid street protests that have rocked the country the past three years.

The report released April 22 by the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School alleges “high-level government involvement in the planning, execution and cover-up” of three gang-led attacks on poor neighborhoods between 2018 and 2020 that left at least 240 civilians dead. The report relied on investigations of the attacks by Haitian and international human rights experts. It alleges the government provided gangs with money, weapons and vehicles and shielded them from prosecution.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury in December sanctioned reputed Haitian gang leader Jimmy Cherizier and two former Moise administration officials – Fednel Monchery and Joseph Pierre Richard Duplan – for helping orchestrate one of the attacks. All three have denied wrongdoing.

Kidnapping is an outgrowth of impunity for criminal organizations, according to Rosy Auguste Ducena, program manager of the Port-au-Prince-based National Network for the Defense of Human Rights.

“We are talking about a regime that has allied itself with armed gangs,” Ducena said.

Justice Minister Rockefeller Vincent denied any government alliance with gangs. He told Reuters in December that the wave of kidnappings was the work of political enemies seeking to undermine Moise “by creating a sense of chaos.”

The rise in kidnappings has petrified many Haitians. The heads of seven private business associations this month issued a joint statement saying they had reached “a saturation point” with soaring crime. They endorsed a nationwide work stoppage that occurred on April 15 to protest Haiti’s security crisis.

“Kidnapping is killing the economy,” said Haitian economist Etzer Emile. He said the tourism and entertainment sectors have withered.

Moise’s administration says it is working hard to end the terror. Two years ago it revived a commission aimed at disarming gang members and reintegrating them into society. Over the past year, the government has increased the police budget and solicited advice from Colombia, which once battled its own kidnapping epidemic. In March, Haiti created an anti-kidnapping task force to attack the problem with tactics such as tracing laundered ransom money.

Still, four policemen died last month in a gun battle with alleged criminals in a slum where kidnapping victims are often held. The government declared a month-long state of emergency in gang-controlled neighborhoods. Yet abductions continue to mount.

Moise, who has opted not to seek re-election this September, has defied the opposition’s calls for him to step down early. On April 14 he issued a statement saying he aimed to form a government of national unity to better tackle the “pressing problem of insecurity.”

HOODS, GUNS AND TORTURE

Many Haitians remain skeptical – and on edge.

One victim was a 29-year-old doctor. He was kidnapped in his own vehicle last November after leaving the Port-au-Prince hospital where he had just finished an overnight shift. He told Reuters his story on condition of anonymity.

At dawn, four armed assailants hustled him into the back seat, threw a hood over his head and held him at gunpoint as they drove, he said. His captors eventually tossed him into a room with three other abductees – a man and two women – who had been snatched earlier.

The physician said his kidnappers ordered him to phone his family to request $500,000 for his release. The first two people he tried said they couldn’t pay. The kidnappers slapped him and delivered a threat.

“They said that if I called a third person that didn’t give me a satisfying response, they would kill me,” he said.

The doctor’s girlfriend said she and three friends negotiated with the gang. She wouldn’t say how much they paid, fearful of becoming targets for other criminals.

The doctor said he reported his abduction to Haiti’s national anti-kidnapping police unit. That unit did not respond to requests for comment.

The physician does not know the fate of his fellow abductees. He said the kidnappers poured melted Styrofoam on their skin because their families had yet to pay up.

Saint Hilaire, the mother of the young girl who was kidnapped and murdered, said she continues to watch her back after speaking publicly about the abduction.

The kidnappers “told me to make sure I never ran into them, because they would kill me,” she said.

(Reporting by Andre Paultre in Port-au-Prince and Sarah Marsh in Havana; editing by Marla Dickerson)

U.N. asks for $29.2 million to help after Caribbean volcano eruption

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The United Nations launched an appeal on Tuesday for $29.2 million to help some 15,000 people displaced when the La Soufriere volcano on the eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent erupted earlier this month.

“We are in a dire situation frankly … We’re not out of the woods,” St. Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves told reporters, adding that scientists had warned eruptions could last another six months.

The volcano erupted on April 9 after decades of inactivity, spewing dark clouds of ash some 10 km (6 miles) into the air and prompting the evacuation of thousands of people. The volcano has continued to rumble and vent ash.

Didier Trebucq, the U.N. Resident Coordinator for Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, visited the affected areas two days ago with Gonsalves and described the scene as “apocalyptic.” He said the U.N. appeal was to scale up assistance for six months.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which has a population of just over 100,000, has not experienced volcanic activity since 1979, when an eruption resulted in about $100 million in damages. An eruption by La Soufriere in 1902 killed more than 1,000 people. The name means “sulfur outlet” in French.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

Coronavirus crisis in Latin America made worse by poverty, inequality, U.N. agency says

By Fabian Cambero

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Latin America and the Caribbean countries in the throes of the coronavirus crisis will only see their problems made worse by festering inequality, poverty and an ailing social safety net, a United Nations agency said on Thursday.

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) said social unrest was on the rise across the region, a sign that immediate action was necessary to aid hard-hit countries struggling long before the pandemic hit.

“The effects of the coronavirus pandemic have spread to all areas of human life, altering the way we interact, paralyzing economies and generating profound changes in societies,” the report said.

Persistently high levels of inequality, the agency said, combined with a sprawling informal labor market that leaves workers without protection and a lack of effective health care coverage have made those problems worse.

Urban slums on the fringes of many of the region’s cities often lack access to basic services, mean many citizens found themselves unable to access food, water and healthcare necessary to confront the crisis.

Poverty meanwhile, has crept upward, while advances in reducing inequality have stagnated, exacerbating trends seen in the five years prior to the crisis.

During that period, Latin America and Caribbean economies grew an average of just 0.3% per year overall, while extreme poverty increased from 7.8% to 11.3% of the population and poverty, from 27.8% to 30.5%.

The report also said the prolonged closure of schools in the region could constitute a “generational catastrophe” that will only deepen inequality.

The pandemic has also brought a rise in mortality that could push down life expectancy in the region depending how long the crisis endures, the agency said.

There have been at least 21,699,000 reported infections and 687,000 reported deaths caused by the novel coronavirus in Latin America and the Caribbean so far.

​ Of every 100 infections last reported around the world, about 24 were reported from countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

(Reporting by Fabian Cambero; Writing by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Iran stops snap nuclear inspections, state-run daily urges caution

DUBAI (Reuters) – An Iranian government newspaper warned on Tuesday that overly radical actions in the nuclear wrangling with the West may lead to the country’s isolation after Tehran ended snap inspections by United Nations inspectors.

Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Kazem Gharibabadi, said it had ended implementation of the so-called Additional Protocol at midnight (2030 GMT) on Monday. The agreement allowed the IAEA to carry out short-notice inspections.

The state-run daily newspaper Iran criticized hardline lawmakers who protested on Monday at Tehran’s decision to permit “necessary” monitoring by U.N. inspectors for up to three months, saying this broke a law passed by parliament in an apparent effort to pressure the United States to lift sanctions.

The law requires ending snap inspections by the U.N. nuclear watchdog from Tuesday if sanctions are not lifted.

“Those who say Iran must take swift tough action on the nuclear accord should say what guarantee there is that Iran will not be left alone as in the past… and will this end anywhere other than helping build a consensus against Iran?” the daily Iran said.

To create room for diplomacy, the U.N. watchdog IAEA on Sunday reached a deal with Iran to cushion the blow of Tehran’s reduced cooperation and refusal to permit short-notice inspections.

On Monday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Iran might enrich uranium up to 60% purity if the country needed it, while repeating a denial of any Iranian intent to seek nuclear weapons.

Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with six powers, which it has been breaching since the United States withdrew in 2018, caps the fissile purity to which Tehran can refine uranium at 3.67%, well under the 20% achieved before the agreement and far below the 90% suitable for a nuclear weapon.

A U.S. State Department spokesman said Khamenei’s comments “sounds like a threat” but reiterated U.S. willingness to engage in talks with Iran about returning to the 2015 nuclear deal.

Washington said last week it was ready to talk to Iran about both nations returning to the accord abandoned by former U.S. President Donald Trump.

Tehran said last week it was studying a European Union proposal for an informal meeting between current members of the deal and the United States, but has yet to respond to it.

Iran, which has resumed enriching to 20% in an apparent bid to heap pressure on the United States, has been at loggerheads with Washington over which side should take the initial step to revive the accord.

Iranian leaders insist Washington must end its punitive campaign first to restore the deal, while Washington says Tehran must first return to full compliance.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Kim Coghill)

WHO reform needed in wake of pandemic, public health experts say

By Kate Kelland and Josephine Mason

LONDON (Reuters) – The role and remit of the World Health Organization (WHO) should be examined in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and reforms will likely be needed to free it from politics and give it more independence, public health experts said on Wednesday.

Speaking at the Reuters Next conference, British epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, Sweden’s state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell and Chikwe Ihekweazu, the head of Nigeria’s Centre for Disease Control, said the United Nations health agency had faced difficulties in leading a global response to the pandemic.

“We need to reflect on how the global architecture can be improved,” Ferguson said, including a need to rethink “the governance of organizations such as the WHO”.

“One of the challenges it faces is being truly independent,” he said. “Typically, it is influenced by big states. Historically that has been western countries like the United States, and now it’s very much China as well – and that can sometimes prove challenging in situations like the last year.”

Many governments around the world, including in the United States, Australia and the European Union, have called for the WHO to be reformed or restructured amid criticism of its response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The WHO has been rocked by a decision last year by the United States to halt its funding and has been accused of being too close to China in the first phase of the pandemic, when critics say Beijing was slow in sharing crucial information on the new coronavirus which first appeared in the city of Wuhan.

The WHO has repeatedly dismissed such accusations, and China insists it has been open and transparent.

Speaking on the same Reuters Next conference panel, Sweden’s Tegnell said that in his view, “this crisis compared to many of the crises in the last decade has become a lot more politicized.”

“That has made the WHO’s role a lot more difficult,” he said.

Nigeria’s Ihekweazu said he hoped the year ahead would see the world work together more closely to tackle the pandemic, particularly in improving equitable access to vaccines designed to prevent the disease.

‘YEAR OF VACCINES’

While vaccines against COVID-19 are starting to be rolled out in some wealthier countries in Europe and the Americas, poorer nations may have to wait some months before they have access to supplies.

“There’s no doubt this year will be the year of vaccines,”Ihekweazu said, adding that he had just seen an updated map of countries where vaccines have been given already.

“Looking at it from a global perspective, it is heartbreaking,” he said. “But it’s early days, it is January, so we’ll have to see how the year pans out.”

All three experts said they expected populations in their countries and others to face restrictions designed to slow the spread of the pandemic for at least the first half of 2021, and maybe longer if the rollout of vaccines takes more time.

But they said they hoped that by the end of the year, life might start to look a little more like a pre-pandemic normal.

“We have to remember that in the world around us, most likely, this virus will keep on transmitting,” said Tegnell. “So we need to keep a high level of preparedness in place. It’s not going to be an easy life.”

(Reporting by Kate Kelland and Josephine Mason; Editing by Alex Richardson)

2020 likely world’s second hottest year, U.N. says

By Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – This year is on track to be the second hottest on record, behind 2016, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said on Wednesday.

Five data sets currently place 2020, a year characterized by heatwaves, droughts, wildfires and raging hurricanes, as the second warmest since records began in 1850.

“2020 is very likely to be one of the three warmest years on record globally,” the Geneva-based U.N. agency said in its State of the Global Climate in 2020 report.

Stoked by extreme heat, wildfires flared across Australia, Siberia and the United States this year, sending smoke plumes around the globe.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a speech at Columbia University in New York that human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are to blame and policies have yet to rise to the challenge.

“To put it simply the state of the planet is broken,” Guterres said. “Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal,” he said.

A less visible sign of change was a surge in marine heat to record levels, with more than 80% of the global ocean experiencing a marine heatwave, the WMO said.

“2020 has, unfortunately, been yet another extraordinary year for our climate,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas, urging more efforts to curb the emissions.

Greenhouse gas concentrations climbed to a new record in 2019 and have risen so far this year despite an expected drop in emissions due to COVID-19 lockdowns, the WMO said last month.

The latest WMO report said the global mean temperature was around 1.2 degrees Celsius above the 1850-1900 baseline between January and October this year, placing it second behind 2016 and marginally ahead of 2019.

Hot years have typically been associated with El Niño, a natural event that releases heat from the Pacific Ocean. However, this year coincides with La Niña which has the opposite effect and cools temperatures.

The WMO will confirm the data in March 2021.

A climate pact agreed in Paris five years ago compels countries to make efforts to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, above which scientists warn of catastrophic climate change.

While it is not the same as crossing that long-term warming threshold, the WMO says there is at least a one in five chance of temperatures temporarily, on an annual basis, exceeding that level by 2024.

Guterres said that last year natural disasters related to climate change cost the world $150 billion, and that air and water pollution are killing 9 million people annually. He urged world leaders to align global finance behind the Paris pact, to commit to reaching net zero emissions, and to fund efforts to adapt to climate change.

(Reporting by Emma Farge; additional reporting by Timothy Gardner in Washington; Editing by Mark Potter and Lisa Shumaker)

United Nations and Ethiopia reach aid pact for war-hit Tigray

ADDIS ABABA/NAIROBI (Reuters) – Ethiopia and the United Nations agreed on Wednesday to channel desperately-needed humanitarian aid to a northern region where a month of war has killed, wounded and uprooted thousands.

The pact, announced by U.N. officials, gives aid workers access to government-controlled areas of Tigray, where federal troops have been battling the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and captured the regional capital.

The war is believed to have killed thousands, sent 45,000 refugees into Sudan, displaced many more within Tigray and worsened suffering in a region where 600,000 people already depended on food aid even before the flare-up from Nov. 4.

As hundreds of foreign workers were forced to leave, aid agencies had appealed for urgent safe access.

Food is running out for 96,000 Eritrean refugees in Tigray.. And medics in the local capital Mekelle were short of painkillers, gloves and body bags, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said at the weekend.

“The U.N. and the Federal Government of Ethiopia have signed an agreement to ensure that humanitarians will have unimpeded, sustained and secure access … to areas under the control of the Federal Government in the Tigray Region,” U.N. humanitarian coordination agency OCHA said in a statement to Reuters.

The government has not commented on the agreement.

TELECOMS PARTLY RESTORED

After phone and internet connections were largely shut down when the war began, telecoms in half a dozen towns in Tigray were partly restored, Ethio Telecom said on Wednesday.

The state-run company said it was using alternative power sources and repairing network damage. Reconnected towns included Dansha, Humera and Mai Kadra, all controlled by the military.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared victory after Mekelle’s fall over the weekend, as TPLF leaders fled for the hills.

On Wednesday, he shifted focus to next year’s parliamentary election, meeting with political parties and election officials about the mid-2021 vote, his office said.

His government postponed it this year due to COVID-19, but Tigray went ahead anyway and re-elected the TPLF, a guerrilla movement-turned-political party.

That defiance was one reason for the federal government’s military offensive against TPLF leaders, a conflict that may jeopardize political reforms since Abiy took office in 2018.

Abiy, Africa’s youngest leader at 44 who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for a pact with Eritrea, was pictured in battle fatigues meeting military officers in photos tweeted by his official photographer on Wednesday.

He took Ethiopia’s top job after nearly three decades of a TPLF-led national government, which had become increasingly repressive, jailing opponents and banning opposition parties.

Abiy removed Tigrayans from government and security posts, saying they were over-represented for an ethnic group accounting for just 6% of Ethiopia’s population. The military went in when a federal army base was ambushed in Tigray.

ADDIS ABABA BLAST

The TPLF casts their former military comrade and partner in government as bent on dominating them to increase his personal grip over the vast nation of 115 million people, which is split into 10 regions run by different ethnic groups.

Abiy, who hails from the larger Oromo and Amharic ethic groups, calls the Tigrayan leaders criminals opposing national unity and plotting attacks in Addis Ababa and elsewhere.

Federal police blamed the TPLF, without offering proof, for a small blast in the capital on Wednesday that injured an officer lightly. There was no immediate response from the TPLF.

There has been little verifiable information from Mekelle, the highland city of 500,000 people, since it fell on Saturday.

TPLF leaders say they are continuing to fight from surrounding mountainous areas.

“Wars are not like taps that you turn on and then turn off. This is going to be a very long, drawn-out process,” Horn of Africa expert Rashid Abdi told an online forum.

(Reporting by Addis Ababa newsroom, David Lewis in Nairobi, Maggie Fick in Istanbul; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne and Tim Cocks; Editing by Maggie Fick and Alison Williams)

Afghan government, Taliban announce breakthrough deal to pursue peace talks

By Hamid Shalizi and Abdul Qadir Sediqi

KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan government and Taliban representatives said on Wednesday they had reached a preliminary deal to press on with peace talks, their first written agreement in 19 years of war and welcomed by the United Nations and Washington.

The agreement lays out the way forward for further discussion but is considered a breakthrough because it will allow negotiators to move on to more substantive issues, including talks on a ceasefire.

“The procedure including its preamble of the negotiation has been finalized and from now on, the negotiation will begin on the agenda,” Nader Nadery, a member of the Afghan government’s negotiating team, told Reuters.

The Taliban spokesman confirmed the same on Twitter.

The agreement comes after months of talks in Doha, the capital of Qatar, encouraged by the United States, while the two sides are still at war, with Taliban attacks on Afghan government forces continuing unabated.

U.S. Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad said that the two sides had agreed on a “three-page agreement codifying rules and procedures for their negotiations on a political roadmap and a comprehensive ceasefire”.

Taliban insurgents refused to agree to a ceasefire during the preliminary stages of talks, despite calls from Western capitals and global bodies, saying that that would be taken up only when the way forward for talks was agreed upon.

“This agreement demonstrates that the negotiating parties can agree on tough issues,” Khalilzad said on Twitter.

The Taliban were ousted from power in 2001 by U.S.-led forces for refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden, the architect of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. A U.S.-backed government has held power in Afghanistan since then, although the Taliban have control over wide areas of the country.

Under a February deal, foreign forces are to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counter-terrorism guarantees from the Taliban.

U.S. President Donald Trump has looked to hasten the withdrawal, despite criticism, saying he wanted to see all American soldiers home by Christmas to end America’s longest war.

The Trump administration has since announced that there would be a sharp drawdown by January, but at least 2,500 troops would remain beyond then.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Tuesday warned NATO against withdrawing troops prematurely and said it should “ensure that we tie further troop reductions in Afghanistan to clear conditions”.

UN envoy for Afghanistan Deborah Lyons welcomed the “positive development” on Twitter, adding that “this breakthrough should be a springboard to reach the peace wanted by all Afghans”.

Last month, an agreement reached between Taliban and government negotiators was held up at the last minute after the insurgents balked at the document’s preamble because it mentioned the Afghan government by name.

A European Union diplomat familiar with the process said that both sides had kept some contentious issues on the side to deal with separately.

“Both sides also know that Western powers are losing patience and aid has been conditional… so both sides know they have to move forward to show some progress,” said the diplomat, requesting anonymity.

(Reporting by Hamid Shalizi, Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Orooj Hakimi in Kabul, and Rupam Jain in Mumbai; Writing by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Nick Macfie)