After weeks of bloody conflict in the northernmost reaches of Ethiopia, international aid groups have obtained access to its war-torn region of Tigray. The United Nations said Wednesday that it has reached a deal with Ethiopia's government, which opens the door to humanitarian groups seeking to help civilians caught in the internecine fighting.
In a statement emailed to NPR, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs explained that the deal ensures "unimpeded, sustained and secure access for humanitarian personnel and services," specifically in the areas that the federal government controls in Tigray and its bordering regions.
Saviano Abreu, spokesperson for OCHA in East Africa, stressed that all humanitarian missions in the area will be "carried out in compliance with the globally-agreed principles of humanity, impartiality, independence and neutrality."
"The UN and humanitarian partners will work to ensure that people impacted by the conflict are assisted without distinction of any kind other than the urgency of their needs," he added.
The agreement promises at least some measure of relief for Tigray, where violence between federal troops and the powerful regional government has caused what the United Nations has called a "full-scale humanitarian crisis." Since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered the military operation roughly one month ago, the state has been seized by shortages of food, fuel and other critical supplies.
Abiy, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, declared victory last weekend after Ethiopian troops captured Tigray's capital, Mekele. But that declaration has been rejected by the Tigray People's Liberation Front, or TPLF, which governs Tigray and dominated Ethiopia's governing coalition before Abiy took power in 2018.
"The fighting will continue," TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael told NPR's Eyder Peralta this week. "From our perspective, as long as they are on our land, we'll fight to the last."
Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation in the state has eroded to the point that tens of thousands of Ethiopians have fled for their lives.
The U.N.'s refugee agency on Tuesday estimated that nearly 46,000 people have crossed the border into Sudan since the start of November. The agency fears that by April, without an adequate response, that number may climb to anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 Ethiopian refugees.
Back in Tigray, an agency spokesperson warned that the war has effectively severed aid to nearly 100,000 Eritrean refugees living in camps in the region. The refugees fled political persecution and compulsory military service in neighboring Eritrea, only to find themselves caught in the middle of a new conflict in Ethiopia.
"The camps [in Tigray] will have now run out of food supplies — making hunger and malnutrition a real danger," spokesman Babar Baloch said in a recorded appeal for help Tuesday. "We are also alarmed at unconfirmed reports of attacks, abductions and forced recruitment at the refugee camps."
Abreu, the OCHA spokesperson, said the agency is planning to conduct an "assessment and response mission" Wednesday for internally displaced people in Afar, the state on Tigray's eastern border. As for specifics in Tigray though, he noted that "discussions regarding operational details are still ongoing."