Pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers in Ethiopia’s conflict-torn Tigray region are suffering from “unprecedented” malnutrition, the UN said in a report published after the government expelled several UN officials.
The latest status report from the UN Humanitarian Coordination Office, published online late Thursday, also described “alarming” malnutrition among children as fears of mass starvation grow nearly 11 months after northern Ethiopia erupted into conflict.
“Of the more than 15,000 pregnant and breastfeeding women examined during the reporting period, more than 12,000 women, or about 79%, were diagnosed with acute malnutrition,” the report said.
The level of moderate malnutrition among children under the age of five “also exceeds the global emergency threshold of 15%, about 18%, while children with severe malnutrition are 2.4%, above the alarming level of 2%”, it says.
On Thursday, Ethiopia announced that it would expel seven senior UN officials to “interfere” in its affairs, including the local heads of the UN children’s agency UNICEF and its humanitarian coordination office.
UN officials were given 72 hours to leave the country.
The UN issued a formal protest over Ethiopia’s decision to expel officials, UN Deputy Spokesman Farhan Haq said on Friday, adding that the Ethiopian prime minister had earlier in the day called UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who had previously said he was “shocked” by the decision.
The formal announcement of a protest came when diplomats held an emergency security council meeting behind closed doors on Friday to discuss the issue.
However, a draft Security Council declaration initiated by Ireland has little chance of success, several diplomats told Agence France-Presse (AFP) after the meeting.
In a statement released late Friday in Ethiopia, the country’s foreign ministry accused officials of diverting “humanitarian aid to the TPLF” – the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which has been locked in a month-long battle with government troops.
It said officials were responsible for “spreading misinformation and politicizing humanitarian aid”, but gave no evidence to support any of the allegations.
“We are convinced that the provision of humanitarian aid will not be affected by this measure,” the ministry said.
UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths has previously condemned allegations by Ethiopian government officials that aid workers were biased in favor of – and even arming – the TPLF, calling the allegations unfair and dangerous.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, sent troops to Tigray in November to overthrow the TPLF, as the regional governing party, a move he said was a response to TPLF attacks on army camps.
Fighting continued for months before rebels in Tigrayan recaptured the regional capital, Mekele, in June, and government forces largely withdrew from the region.
Since then, the TPLF has launched offensive means in the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar and the humanitarian crisis has worsened.
Signs of “siege”
Tigray itself receives only about 10% of the aid it needs, and in July the UN warned that 400,000 people across the region had “crossed the threshold of famine”.
The UN’s progress report published on Thursday said that during the week ending on Tuesday, 79 auxiliary trucks had reached Tigray from Afar.
“This brings the number of humanitarian trucks that have entered the region since July 12 to 606 trucks, or 11% of the trucks needed.”
Federal officials blame the TPLF for blocking supplies, but a State Department spokesman told AFP last week that access to key supplies and services was “denied by the Ethiopian government” and that there were “indications of a siege.”
“In this time of impending famine and heartbreaking need, the Ethiopian government continues to take steps to prevent aid from reaching the people in need,” USID chief Samantha Power said on Friday, condemning the deportations.
The TPLF also struck at the expulsions, calling them “the latest addition to the criminal behaviors that the regime has adopted as acceptable tactics.”
In September, the UN sounded the alarm over hundreds of auxiliary trucks that it said had “not returned” from Tigray, although the TPLF said it was due to obstacles drivers encountered when entering from Afar, currently the only viable road to Tigray.
The UN has been able to operate 17 passenger flights from Addis Ababa to Mekele since July.
However, the EU’s humanitarian airlift, which was originally expected to provide fairly regular traffic, has only been able to operate one flight since its inauguration on 11 September.