Thousands more refugees cross into Sudan to flee fighting in Ethiopia

Fears grow of humanitarian crisis as conflict in Tigray region pushes 8,000 people across border in two days

Amhara militias head to face the Tigray People’s Liberation Front
Members of Amhara militias head to face the Tigray People’s Liberation Front in Sanja. Photograph: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters
Members of Amhara militias head to face the Tigray People’s Liberation Front in Sanja. Photograph: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters
Africa correspondent

First published on Wed 11 Nov 2020 12.30 EST

Thousands more refugees have fled fighting in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region and crossed into neighbouring Sudan, as fears grow that conflict between national and provincial forces could prompt a serious humanitarian crisis.

As many as 10,000 Ethiopians are now thought to have already crossed the border in the last two days, and aid officials say hundreds of thousands more are likely to leave their homes if the conflict, now entering its second week, does not end.

Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, launched military operations in Tigray, after he accused local authorities of attacking a military camp in the region and attempting to loot military assets. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which is in power in the province, denies the attack and has accused the prime minister of concocting the story to justify deploying the offensive.

Sudanese frontier officials described hungry and tired children, as well as casualties from the fighting, arriving in Sudan after a difficult journey.

“More and more people, including wounded from the operations there, are still coming. The numbers are increasing rapidly. There are lots of children and women,” said Khalid Al-Sir, the head of the government refugee agency in Kassala state, in east Sudan.

“They are arriving very tired and exhausted. They are hungry and thirsty since they have walked long distances on rugged terrain.”

The situation on the ground is deteriorating rapidly, Sir said.

One 30 year old border police officer described a day-long journey on foot with some 30 others fleeing, before spending two days in Sudan, exposed to the sun and wind in a border town that is quickly becoming overwhelmed.

The fighting has involved clashes between ground troops, air strikes and artillery duels, with heavy casualties reported on both sides.

Airports in Tigray are closed, roads blocked, internet services cut off and even banks are no longer operating. Sajjad Mohammad Sajid, the United Nations’ humanitarian chief in Ethiopia, said on Tuesday evening that long lines had appeared outside bread shops and supply-laden trucks are stuck at the province’s borders.

Sajid told the Associated Press that up to 2 million people in the now isolated province were having a “very, very difficult time” and were short of fuel or food, or both.

Telephone lines to the region were still down, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) said in its latest report on the crisis.

In a new statement on Thursday, Abiy claimed that the western part of the Tigray region had been liberated, and accused the TPLF rulers of seeking to “destroy Ethiopia.”

The top U.S. diplomat for Africa, Tibor Nagy, spoke with Ethiopia’s foreign minister on Wednesday “to urge again immediate action to restore peace and de-escalate tensions,” a State Department spokesperson said.

Earlier this week, Abiy brushed aside requests from the UN, the UK and the African Union for an immediate end to hostilities.

“Operations will cease as soon as the criminal junta is disarmed, legitimate administration in the region restored, and fugitives apprehended [and] brought to justice,” Abiy posted on Twitter.

Both sides have claimed successes, including federal troops taking an airport and Tigrayans alleging they downed a jet. With limited communications to the region and outsiders barred, it is difficult to verify such statements.

The government has confirmed, however, that the TPLF is controlling a compound of the powerful Northern Command military in Tigray’s capital, Mekelle.

“It looks like, unfortunately, this may not be something which can be resolved by any party in a week or two,” Sajid said. “It looks like it’s going to be a protracted conflict, which is a huge concern from the point of view of protection of civilians.”

The TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s governing coalition for decades before Abiy came to power in 2018. He won last year’s Nobel peace prize for ending a war with neighbouring Eritrea.

The sweeping political reforms the 44-year-old former soldier pushed through won wide praise, but have allowed old ethnic and other grievances to surface.

Tigrayan leaders have complained of being unfairly targeted in corruption prosecutions, removed from top positions and blamed for the country’s problems.

The postponement of national elections due to the Covid-19 pandemic aggravated tensions and when parliamentarians in Addis Ababa, the capital, voted to extend officials’ mandates, Tigrayan leaders went ahead with regional elections in September that Abiy’s government deemed illegal.

Both sides have access to heavy weapons, armour and considerable stocks of ammunition, and observers have warned that a lengthy conflict is possible.

This would be immensely damaging to a fragile country, and region.

The federal government on Thursday said some 150 suspected “operatives” accused of seeking to “strike fear and terror” throughout the country had been detained.

The statement said the suspects “happen to be ethnically diverse,” but concerns remain high among ethnic Tigrayans amid reports of being singled out by authorities.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a global campaign group, called the arrests of the reporters “a dangerous reversal of the early steps taken by [the] government to improve press freedom”.

The standoff leaves nearly 900 aid workers in the Tigray region struggling to contact the outside world, let alone bring in humanitarian supplies.

There were already 100,000 internally displaced people and 600,000 dependent on food aid in Tigray before the conflict, aid agencies said.