The Ethiopian government says its forces shot at United Nations staff members in the country’s embattled Tigray Region on Sunday after the staffers breached two checkpoints.
Senior government official Redwan Hussien told reporters in Addis Ababa on Tuesday that the incident happened as the U.N. team tried to reach the Shimelba camp for Eritrean refugees.
He said security forces opened fire when the U.N. staffers tried to pass through a third checkpoint.
“They were told in some areas they were not supposed to move,” Hussien said, “but they indulged themselves in a kind of adventurous expedition.”
Hussien also said the staffers were apprehended but have since been released.
“We’ve seen the reports of a U.N. convoy being shot at in Tigray,” U.N. Spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in New York. “These are alarming reports and we are engaging at the highest levels to express our concerns and avoid any such incidents in the future.”
He said U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres spoke Monday with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, but he would not confirm that the incident was discussed.
Dujarric said the exact details of what happened are “still being looked at.”
Fighting erupted in the disputed northern Tigray Region on November 4, when some 600,000 people were already dependent on food aid.
Thousands of people are believed to have been killed in the war, which has displaced more than 1 million people, including 45,000 refugees who fled to neighboring Sudan.
Growing humanitarian crisis
The U.N. reached an agreement last Wednesday with the Ethiopian government to provide humanitarian aid in Tigray, saying at the time the deal would give aid workers access to government-controlled areas of the region. But access has remained limited.
U.N. Spokesman Dujarric said the organization is committed to reaching refugees and displaced persons.
“Our humanitarian colleagues report that the dire shortage of food, water, fuel and cash in the Tigray region is seriously affecting people, including humanitarian workers,” he told reporters. “In many areas, people have now been living for more than a month with no electricity, running water, banking or communications.”
The Director-General of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Robert Mardini, told reporters in a conference call Tuesday that his teams in Mekelle, the capital of Tigray province, have also found a population struggling after being cut off from supplies and communications for more than a month.
“Mekelle is a city of half a million people, which are basically today without medical care,” Mardini said. “Ayeder hospital, which is the main hospital, is paralyzed. They have run out of supplies, fuel and running water.”
He said the hospital urgently needs supplies, not only for the wounded, but to assist women giving birth, dialysis patients and to treat other health issues. The ICRC and the Ethiopian Red Cross have a relief convoy standing by in Addis Ababa awaiting government permission. If allowed entry to Tigray, it will be the first one since fighting began.
Mardini said ICRC teams in Sudan report refugees arriving with little more than the clothes on their backs. Many remain by the river rather than going to U.N.-run camps, because they hope to find family members who cross after them.
“Our office in Addis Ababa has received more than 5,000 requests from people all over the world looking for help to get in contact with their family members in Tigray,” Mardini said.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy claimed victory last week over the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) after federal forces captured the city of Mekelle the previous weekend.
TPLF leaders, however, have established a presence in mountains surrounding the region as part of an apparent emerging guerrilla strategy.
Abiy’s government considers the TPLF-led Tigray regional government as illegitimate. The regional government held elections in September in defiance of a federal decision to postpone the polls.
The Tigray regional government dominated Ethiopia’s ruling coalition for more than 25 years before Abiy took power in 2018.