JEDDAH: The UN warned on Tuesday of an unfolding humanitarian disaster in the Horn of Africa as thousands of people fled fighting in northern Ethiopia.
Up to 4,000 refugees a day are streaming across the border into Sudan, missiles have been fired into Eritrea and there are fears that the conflict could drag in other neighboring countries such as Egypt, Somalia and Djibouti.
Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt are already involved in a bitter dispute over an Ethiopian dam project that the other two countries say restricts their access to water from the Blue Nile. Egypt and Sudan are holding joint war exercises this week, intended as a combined show of force.
The latest conflict began on Nov. 4, when Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed accused the ruling northern provincial Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) of armed revolt, and launched air strikes and a ground offensive against them.
The prime minister warned on Tuesday that a three-day ultimatum for the TPLF to lay down their weapons and surrender had expired, paving the way for an advance on the Tigray capital, Mekelle. “The final critical act of law enforcement will be done in the coming days,” said Abiy, Africa’s youngest leader and the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Babar Baloch, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said: “People are coming out of Ethiopia really scared, afraid, with stories saying they have been fleeing heavy fighting and there’s no sign of the fighting stopping.” At least 30,000 had already fled, he said.
Hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans were dependent on food aid even before the conflict began, and humanitarian workers are scaling back their operations for security reasons, which increases the suffering.
The UN and states around Europe and Africa are urging talks, and even the Nobel committee voiced concern in a rare comment on a past laureate’s actions. But Abiy has said he will negotiate only when the rule of law is restored in Tigray.
His federal armed forces are about 140,000-strong, and are battle-hardened from fighting in Somalia, rebellious border regions and Eritrea. However, many senior officers were Tigrayan, there is a lot of powerful weaponry in Tigray, and the TPLF has seized the powerful Northern Command’s headquarters in Mekelle.