NAIROBI, Kenya – Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed again ruled out dialogue with leaders in the rebel Tigray region on Friday, but said he was ready to speak to representatives “operating legally” there when he met with three envoys. African Union specials that attempt to end the deadly conflict between federal troops and forces in the region.
The meeting took place as more and more people fled the capital of Tigray before the promised “final phase” of the army’s offensive. Meanwhile, the number of people making it across the border into Sudan has slowed to a trickle, raising fears that they will be prevented from leaving.
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The Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister, who resisted international mediation as “interference”, said he appreciated the “concern of the elderly” of AU envoys, but told them that his government’s failure to uphold the rule of law in Tigray “would fuel a culture of impunity at a devastating cost to the country’s survival,” according to his office. The government of Abiy and the regional government led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front each regard the other as illegitimate.
The three AU envoys, former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano and former South African President Kgalema Motlanthe, were not immediately informed. AU spokesperson Ebba Kalondo did not say if they could meet with TPLF leaders, which Abiy’s office rejected.
“Not possible,” senior Ethiopian official Redwan Hussein said in a message to the PA. “Above all, the leadership of the TPLF is still on the loose.” He called reports that the TPLF had appointed an envoy to discuss an immediate ceasefire with the international community a “farce”.
The fighting has reportedly remained well outside the capital of Tigray, Mekele, a densely populated city of half a million people who have been warned by the Ethiopian government that they will be shown “no mercy” if they do not distance themselves from the leaders of the region.
Tigray has been almost entirely cut off from the outside world since November 4, when Abiy announced a military offensive in response to a TPLF attack on a military base. This makes it difficult to verify allegations of the fighting, but aid workers have said at least hundreds of people have been killed.
The fighting threatens to destabilize Ethiopia, which has been described as the linchpin of Africa’s strategic horn.
With transport links cut, food and other supplies are running out in Tigray, home to 6 million people, and the United Nations has called for immediate and unimpeded access to aid.
Multiple crises multiply. More than 40,000 refugees have fled to Sudan, where people are struggling to provide them with food, shelter and medical care. A humanitarian agency says hospitals in Tigray are running out of drugs. And the fighting near Eritrean refugee camps in northern Ethiopia has put them in the crosshairs.
Worryingly, refugees in Sudan told The Associated Press that Ethiopian forces near the border are preventing people from leaving. AP journalists have found that level crossings have slowed to a trickle in recent days. The Ethiopian government has not commented on this.
Almost half of the refugees are children. The spread of COVID-19 is only one concern.
“We cannot maintain social distancing here in the camp,” said Mohammed Rafik Nasri, of the United Nations refugee agency. “This is really a challenge among the many issues that the need is increasing because the number is increasing. Today, we receive a convoy of 1,000 people arriving in the camp. And housing is one of the biggest challenges we have right now. ”
Frightened, sometimes not to mention their loved ones left behind, refugees continue to share gruesome tales of the fighting.
“The country has no peace. You see one tribe killing another. It’s so difficult, ”said one of them, Atsbaha Gtsadik.
Meanwhile, some of the tens of thousands of refugees from Eritrea who live in northern Ethiopia have been in the crosshairs as the fighting swept over them.
“Reports of conflicts around refugee camps are very worrying,” said Juliette Stevenson, spokesperson for the UN refugee agency. Communication and transportation restrictions make it impossible to verify camp conditions, she said.
But the 96,000 Eritrean refugees “will run out of food by Monday if supplies cannot reach them,” the agency said in a statement.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, in a rare dispatch from the interior of Tigray, warned that health facilities were running low on drugs and other supplies and that health workers needed help to treat the injured .
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During a trip to western Tigray, the ICRC discovered a number of displaced people living in a makeshift camp without food, water or medical care. “They told us they feared for their lives and wanted a safe passage out of the area.
His statement added: “So much is still unknown about the level of violence and subsequent suffering that the people of the Tigray region have endured in just three weeks.”