Ethiopia says all aid flights to Tigray must be searched

NAIROBI, Kenya — Ethiopia’s government on Friday said all flights carrying aid to its embattled Tigray region must go through its capital for inspection to ensure they carry only humanitarian items while aid workers say food isn’t reaching millions of people who need it.

The United States and European Union have compared Ethiopia’s current treatment of Tigray to a “siege.”

Aid to Tigray remains blocked, though access within the region is improving, the United Nations humanitarian agency said Friday. Some 5.2 million people need help and hundreds of thousands face famine conditions in the world’s worst hunger crisis in a decade.

Ethiopia’s government last month declared a unilateral cease-fire in Tigray as its soldiers retreated ahead of resurgent Tigray fighters loyal to the region’s elected government, which Ethiopia now calls a terrorist group. Fighting began in November following months of political tensions and after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed accused Tigray forces of attacking a military base.

The war has threatened to destabilize Africa’s second most populous country, an anchor in the strategic Horn of Africa region. Thousands of civilians have been killed, and the conflict threatens to draw in neighboring Sudan as Tigray forces fight their way in that direction in the hope of finding an opening to the outside world.

The fighting is moving into western Tigray, where forces from Ethiopia’s neighboring Amhara region had earlier taken control of many communities and expelled ethnic Tigrayans. This new phase in the conflict could be “really, really much more dangerous than what we’ve seen so far,” Tsedale Lemma, the founder of the independent Addis Standard magazine, told an online event Thursday night. Amhara authorities have said western Tigray is historically theirs.

Caught in the middle are millions of Tigrayans, many of whom have been cut off from the world for months in areas the U.N. and other aid groups struggle to deliver help.

People have begun to starve to death, The Associated Press has reported. And witnesses have described Ethiopian forces, backed by those from neighboring Eritrea to the north, burning and looting crops and other food supplies in what the U.S. has called an “entirely man-made” famine crisis.

In late June, Amhara special forces blocked a 29-truck convoy with World Food Program aid from entering Tigray, the U.N. update said. Two bridges that are crucial to delivering aid to the region were destroyed on July 1. Electricity and telecommunications in the region remain cut.

“Humanitarian supplies within the region are quickly depleting, including a severe shortage of fuel,” the U.N. said, adding that over 1.8 million people “could slide into starvation.”

Ethiopia’s foreign ministry on Friday said it hasn’t denied any request for a humanitarian aid flight into Tigray since the government announced earlier this week that such flights would be allowed. But the U.N. said no such flights have begun. Commercial flights stopped on June 23.

Ethiopia’s foreign ministry also accused the U.N. humanitarian agency of making biased statements that “seem to be framed to encourage” the Tigray forces and mislead the international community. The U.N. agency didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Tigray forces have dismissed the unilateral cease-fire as a “sick joke” and insist that a key condition for a halt to the fighting would be “the operation of international flights directly from airports in Tigray without any preconditions.”

The tensions, along with unsubstantiated allegations circulating on social media that humanitarian flights could carry arms to the Tigray forces, have increased the risks for aid workers in the region. This week, the medical charity Doctors Without Borders announced it was suspending its services in the key towns of Abi Adi, Adigrat and Axum after three staffers were murdered.

No one has claimed responsibility for the killings, the aid group said, adding that aid organizations “have been repeatedly undermined by public statements casting unwarranted suspicion on their activities, thereby jeopardizing the safety of their staff on the ground.”