(FILES) In this file photo displaced children from Western Tigray wait at meal time to receive food outside a classroom in the…
FILE - Displaced children from Western Tigray wait to receive food outside a classroom in the school where they are sheltering in Tigray's capital, Mekele, Feb. 24, 2021. Hunger and sexual violence have continued to rise dramatically since then.

The U.N. humanitarian chief warned Thursday that an already dire situation in Ethiopia's northern Tigray region is getting worse five months into the conflict, with hunger and sexual violence rising and no sign of an Eritrean troop withdrawal.

Mark Lowcock told a closed-door meeting of the U.N. Security Council that his office is starting to receive reports of people starving to death, according to a copy of his remarks seen by VOA.

Ofla woreda, in Tigray

"We received the first report this week of four internally displaced people dying from hunger. I then received a report just this morning of 150 people dying from hunger in Ofla woreda [district] — just south of Mekelle," Lowcock told council members. "This should alarm us all. It is a sign of what lies ahead if more action is not taken. Starvation as a weapon of war is a violation."

Mekelle is the capital of Tigray. The region has been the epicenter of hostilities since November, when fighters from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) attacked federal government army bases in the region, according to the federal government. The attack, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said, prompted his government to launch a military offensive to push the group out. 

Abandoned villages

Lowcock said that as of the end of March, Ethiopia's Bureau of Labor and Social Affairs estimates that 1.7 million people in Tigray have been displaced from their homes.

FILE - A woman leans on the wall of a damaged house that was shelled as federal-aligned forces entered the city, in Wukro, north of Mekelle, capital of Tigray. The region has been beset by hostilities since November.

"Since then, hundreds of thousands have been fleeing from Western Tigray — and still are — with many villages having been abandoned entirely," he said.

Lowcock said aid workers are having difficulty reaching the needy and vulnerable, as "the vast majority" of Tigray is completely or partially inaccessible to aid workers, either because of fighting or denial of access.

The outbreak of hostilities began around harvest season, and it follows a severe locust infestation. Food insecurity is growing, and next season's food supply is also under threat if fighting does not stop in time for farmers to plant.

The United Nations estimates that at least 4.5 million of Tigray's nearly 6 million people need humanitarian aid. The Ethiopian government has put the figure even higher — at 91% of the population.

Despite obstacles and danger, humanitarians have been able to reach more than 1.7 million with some form of emergency assistance.

Next week, the U.N. will appeal for $1.5 billion to assist 16 million people in Ethiopia this year.

No sign of withdrawal

On March 26, Abiy said Eritrea had agreed to withdraw its forces from Tigray, but Lowcock told council members there is no evidence this has happened.

"Unfortunately, I must say that neither the U.N. nor any of the humanitarian agencies we work with have seen proof of Eritrean withdrawal," he said. "We have, however, heard some reports of Eritrean soldiers now wearing Ethiopian Defense Force uniforms."

The U.S. ambassador issued a statement following the closed-door meeting, noting credible reports that Eritrean forces are changing into Ethiopian military uniforms "in order to remain in Tigray indefinitely."

"The Eritrean government must withdraw its forces from Ethiopia immediately," Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said.

FILE - A Tigrayan woman who says she was gang-raped by Amhara fighters speaks to doctor-turned-refugee Tewodros Tefera at the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic in Hamdayet near the Sudan-Ethiopia border, eastern Sudan, March 23, 2021.

Reports of atrocities

Lowcock said humanitarian workers continue to report new atrocities committed by Eritrean forces. Most alarming, he said, are the widespread reports of rapes and gang rapes against civilians.

Diplomats said the U.N. humanitarian chief recounted the horrific story of one survivor, who hid in the forest with her family for six days. During that time, she gave birth to a baby who died a few days later. Her husband was killed. And while she tried to get her remaining children to safety, she encountered four Eritrean soldiers who raped her in front of her children all night and into the following day.

"The majority of rapes are committed by men in uniform," Lowcock told council members. "Cases reported have involved the Ethiopian National Defense Force, Eritrean Defense Forces, Amhara Special Forces, and other irregular armed groups or aligned militia."

During a Wednesday meeting of the Security Council that focused on the issue of sexual violence in conflict, many council members expressed concern about reports coming from Tigray and called for independent, credible investigations to be conducted to hold perpetrators accountable.

The U.N. official whose office monitors and works to prevent sexual violence in conflict, Pramila Patten, told that meeting that more than 100 allegations of rape have been recorded since November.

"It may be many months before we know the full scale and magnitude — the extent and impact — of these atrocities," she said.

Patten noted health care workers are documenting new cases of rape and gang rape daily, "despite their fear of reprisals and attacks on the limited shelters and clinics still in operation."