By Vatican News
A United Nations humanitarian flight to Mekelle, the capital of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, was forced to turn back in midair on Friday after a federal government airstrike on the city. UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Martin Griffiths, said the UN had not received any prior warning of the airstrike on Mekelle and the UN Humanitarian Air Services (UNHAS) flight from Addis Ababa with 11 aid workers had been cleared by federal authorities. However, the Mekelle airport control tower asked the flight to abort landing. The flight safely returned to Addis Ababa and UN agencies are reviewing the situation.
Gemma Connell, head of the regional office for Southern and Eastern Africa for OCHA, the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarians Affairs also confirmed the incident.
Humanitarian sources and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which controls the area, said a university in Mekelle was hit by the strike. Government spokesperson Legesse Tulu said a former military base occupied by TPLF fighters was targeted, and he denied the university was hit. Reuters reported the TPLF-controlled Tigrai TV as saying 11 civilians were wounded in the air strike on Mekelle, the fourth this week.
The Ethiopian conflict
Thousands of people have been killed and more than 2 million have been displaced since November, when tension between the TPLF, who dominated Ethiopia’s ruling party for decades, and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a non-Tigrayan who took office in 2018, erupted in conflict.
The government has stepped up airstrikes on the Mekelle as fighting has escalated in Amhara, a neighbouring region where the TPLF has seized territory that the government and allied armed Amhara armed groups are trying to recover.
Following Friday’s incident, the UN suspended all flights to Mekelle. Griffiths said the episode raises serious concerns for the safety of aid workers trying to help civilians in need. He called on all parties to the conflict to respect international humanitarian law including protecting humanitarian staff and assets from harm.
Connell also echoed Griffiths’ worries. “While we're still ascertaining all of the facts in relation to this event, we're obviously concerned about what has taken place today, and what it means for the humanitarian operations in northern Ethiopia moving forward,” she told journalists at the UN in New York, briefing them via videolink from the UN base in Nairobi, Kenya.
7 million in desperate need in the north
She said, “Today, there are around 7 million people in northern Ethiopia in desperate need of humanitarian assistance,” which includes over 5 million in the Tigray region, and 2 million in Amhara and Afar. Many of the displaced people have been displaced several times before and are left without shelter. “We have rates of acute malnutrition that are rising every day, and not just among children. Nearly half of the pregnant and lactating women in Tigray are also now acutely malnourished,” Connell said.
Challenges to delivering aid
The OCHA’s regional official said the delay in delivering humanitarian assistance to the impoverished region is alarming, since some operations were already cancelled due to fuel shortage, adding to already difficult humanitarian situation. Connell lamented the “multitude” of issues hindering timely delivery of aid, such as approvals from the federal government and shortage of cash to buy supplies and provisions, the problems on the checkpoints along the road as well as the community resistance in some areas.
UN pledges its continued presence
“So, with the conflict escalating and with all of the other barriers, we are facing many challenges on a daily basis, but we are absolutely not giving up,” Connnel emphasized. She said that 400,000 people in Tigray are facing “catastrophic food insecurity”, but they are not giving up. There are many humanitarian workers, she added, who have remained on the ground, "still completely dedicated to delivering assistance that is required".