Ethiopia denies it’s trying to ‘suffocate’ Tigray region

NAIROBI, Kenya — Ethiopia’s government on Friday rejected accusations that it’s trying to “suffocate the Tigray people” by denying them urgently needed food and other aid, even though transport and communications links remained severed to the region that faces a famine crisis.

Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen spoke to reporters a day after a bridge that’s crucial for accessing much of the region of 6 million people was destroyed and the United Nations indicated that special forces from the neighboring Amhara region were to blame. Amhara authorities have occupied western Tigray and forced out hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tigrayans.

“The insinuation that we are trying to suffocate the Tigrayan people by denying humanitarian access and using hunger as a weapon of war is beyond the pale. There is absolutely no reason for us to do so. These are our people,” Demeke said.

The U.N. Security Council was expected to discuss Tigray on Friday, France’s U.N. ambassador – the council’s current president – said Thursday.

Ethiopia’s government faces growing international pressure as it continues to cut of the region from the rest of the world. In a stunning turn earlier this week, Ethiopia declared a unilateral cease-fire on humanitarian grounds while retreating from Tigray forces.

The World Food Program said in a statement on Friday that a second key bridge leading into Tigray was destroyed on Thursday, while no WFP flights bringing in U.N. or other aid workers have been allowed by Ethiopia since June 22. Its work delivering food for Tigray has now resumed after fighting stopped operations on June 24, but “serious challenges” remain.

“Lives will be lost if supply routes into Tigray do not fully open and parties to the conflict continue to disrupt or endanger free movement of cargo,” WFP said. The U.N. agency said trucks are loaded and ready to replenish its nearly-exhausted food stocks inside Tigray where 5.2 million people need emergency food aid.

Up to 900,000 people in Tigray are facing famine conditions in the world’s worst hunger crisis in a decade, the United States has said. A new U.N. humanitarian update issued late Thursday said “the blackout of electricity, telecommunications, and internet throughout Tigray region will only exacerbate the already dire humanitarian situation.”

Ethiopia’s foreign minister said the government has a roadmap for dialogue to resolve the Tigray crisis that’s expected to include “rank and file members of the (Tigray People’s Liberation Front) who show readiness to choose a peaceful path.” But Tigray forces now control most of the region and have demanded that Ethiopia return basic services before any talks.

“A cease-fire doesn’t mean cutting a region off power or destroying critical infrastructure,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell tweeted on Friday. “A credible cease-fire means doing everything possible so that aid reaches the millions of children, women and men who urgently need it.”

The security situation in Tigray was generally calm after the retreat of Ethiopian forces and those of neighboring Eritrea, who have been accused by witnesses of some of the worst atrocities in the war.

Officials with Eritrea, an enemy of Tigray leaders after a 1998-2000 war along their border, have not responded to requests for comment.

Amhara authorities have warned Tigray forces against trying to retake the region’s western areas. But the Tigray forces spokesman told The Associated Press this week that they would “liberate” the region from “enemies.”