Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Monday said efforts were on to restore order in Tigray, where fighting and lawlessness were hindering aid delivery to desperate civilians.
Abiy, the winner of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, on November 28 declared victory in Tigray after the army captured Mekele, the regional capital, following nearly a month of bloody conflict against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
But the TPLF vowed to fight on and the United Nations said on Friday that continued clashes in the northern region were complicating efforts to reach hundreds of thousands of people in dire need, despite a deal granting them access to territory under federal control.
Abiy repeated Monday that military operations were over in Tigray, adding that the protection and security of civilians affected by the conflict “remains an essential priority”.
“The current task of the federal government mainly includes bringing fugitives to justice, restoring law and order, guaranteeing our citizens in the affected areas have unfettered access to humanitarian aid” and resettling refugees and repairing infrastructure, his office said in a statement.
– Looting and protests –
Abiy — who announced the start of military operations in Tigray on November 4 — also said Mekele had been captured “without civilian casualties and destruction of property”.
But a doctor at a leading Mekele hospital told AFP that 27 civilians were killed in “artillery and rocket shelling” on November 28 and more than 100 were wounded.
“The situation in our hospital is very critical,” the doctor said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“We have formally stopped providing services, including for wounded trauma patients, because of no light, no fuel for the backup generator, no gloves, no pain medication, antibiotics or food for patients and staff.”
He also said there was no law enforcement in Mekele and “widespread looting” had taken hold, including by soldiers, with even the hospital ambulances pilfered.
“Following this, the people in Mekele expressed their anger by blocking roads throughout the city,” the doctor said, adding that two protesters were shot by Ethiopian troops.
Tigray remains under a communications blackout and media access has been restricted so verifying claims has been difficult.
A spokeswoman for Abiy said “there were no air strikes in Mekele” but did not address the question of civilian deaths.
A government task force set up in response to the Tigray conflict did not respond to a request for comment.
– UN team detained –
The conflict has claimed thousands of lives, according to the International Crisis Group think tank, and more than 48,000 refugees have streamed across the border into Sudan.
Aid groups have warned of a possible humanitarian catastrophe within Tigray, where around 600,000 people depended on food handouts before the fighting even began, among them 96,000 Eritrean refugees.
The UN announced last Wednesday that it had reached an agreement with Addis Ababa to administer aid in areas of Tigray under government control, but nearly a week later humanitarian officials say access remains difficult.
A UN team trying to visit refugee camps outside the Tigray town of Shire on Sunday were stopped by soldiers and turned back to Humera — another Tigray town — where they were briefly detained, four UN officials told AFP on Monday.
One source said the team was shot at.
Abiy sent troops, tanks and warplanes into Tigray in response to what he said were attacks by pro-TPLF forces on federal army camps.
The move marked a dramatic escalation of tensions between Abiy and the TPLF, which dominated Ethiopian politics for nearly three decades before anti-government protests swept Abiy to office in 2018.
Analysts have warned that the TPLF could shift gears to adopt insurgency-style tactics.
But Abiy dismissed suggestions Monday that the TPLF were well-armed veterans, describing them as “thoroughly defeated and in disarray, with insignificant capability to mount a protracted insurgency”.