The United Nations' political chief urged Tigrayan forces in northern Ethiopia on Friday to "immediately and completely" endorse a cease-fire declared by the government so that food aid can reach a growing number of starving people in the embattled region.
"The cease-fire announcement provides an opportunity that all parties to the conflict, including the TPLF, must seize and build upon," Rosemary DiCarlo said, referring to the Tigray People's Liberation Front.
"As of today, the TDF has yet to agree to the cease-fire," she said, referring to the Tigray Defense Forces, the group's fighters.
The U.N. appealed for calm so aid workers could reach starving people, particularly in remote areas.
Hunger crisis has worsened
Acting humanitarian chief Ramesh Rajasingham said that in the two weeks since he had last briefed council members on the food crisis, it has "worsened dramatically." During that briefing, he said 350,000 people were in faminelike conditions.
"More than 400,000 people are estimated to have crossed the threshold into famine, and another 1.8 million people are on the brink of famine," he said Friday. "Some are suggesting that the numbers are even higher."
Overall, of the 6 million people who live in Tigray, the U.N. says 5.2 million need some level of food assistance. In the past two months, it has reached about 3.7 million of them.
Rajasingham said it is urgent to start reaching people as the rainy season takes hold, food supplies become depleted, and risks grow from flooding and waterborne diseases.
"The lives of many of these people depend on our ability to reach them with food, medicine, nutrition supplies and other humanitarian assistance," he said. "And we need to reach them now. Not next week. Now."
He appealed to armed actors to provide guarantees for safe passage along roads for aid workers and supplies in and out of Tigray, as well as to remote areas of the region, and for aid flights to resume.
On Monday, the Ethiopian government announced an immediate unilateral humanitarian cease-fire after nearly eight months of fighting with Tigrayan forces. Tigrayan fighters reclaimed control of the regional capital Mekelle after Ethiopian government forces withdrew.
"The government must now demonstrate that it truly intends to use the cease-fire to address the humanitarian catastrophe in Tigray," U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield said.
She and several other council members called for a permanent cease-fire, inclusive dialogue and reconciliation, unhindered and safe access for humanitarians, and accountability for atrocities committed by all sides in the conflict.
Friday's meeting was the Security Council's first public discussion of the situation, following six closed-door meetings since hostilities erupted in November.
Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said holding an open session could further destabilize the country and politically weaken the Ethiopian government.
"The situation in Tigray must remain a domestic issue of Ethiopia, and we believe interference by the Security Council in solving it is counterproductive," he said.
But Ireland's envoy, who has been active in bringing the issue to the council, disagreed, saying that "it is clear a catastrophe is unfolding" and council action is overdue.
"The council's voice matters on this issue," Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason said. "Today, finally, we meet publicly, and all council members have an opportunity to send a clear message to the parties on the ground: This conflict must end. Humanitarian needs must be urgently addressed."
The three African members of the council — Kenya, Niger and Tunisia — along with the Caribbean nation St. Vincent and the Grenadines, called on the council to act responsibly and to listen to Africa when it comes to African issues.
"In our view, dialogue is strength, and it is at the core of the African identity," Kenyan Ambassador Martin Kimani said on behalf of the group. "Embrace it and save the precious lives of the people of Tigray to protect your national peace and once again be an anchor of regional security."
Ethiopia's envoy Taye Atske-Selassie told the council his government had made a "difficult political decision" to suspend the military operation in favor of protecting the state. But now it believes it has created the conditions for unhindered humanitarian assistance and for farmers to plant this season.
Fighting between the Ethiopian federal government and the TPLF broke out in November, leaving thousands of civilians dead and forcing more than 2 million people from their homes. Some 60,000 refugees crossed to neighboring Sudan.
Troops from Eritrea, Ethiopia's neighbor to the north, and Amhara, a neighboring region to the south of Tigray, also entered the conflict in support of the Ethiopian government. The U.N. said Friday that the Eritreans had withdrawn to the border and the Amhara regional force remained in place despite advances by the Tigrayan forces.