Ethiopia returning refugees who fled fighting in Tigray

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Thousands of refugees fled camps in Ethiopia’s Tigray region as war swept through, food ran out and colleagues were reportedly attacked. But Ethiopia’s government said Friday it’s returning the “misinformed” refugees back to their camps near Eritrea, the country they originally fled.

In a statement asserting that the fighting in Tigray is over, Ethiopia’s government said its military offensive against the now-fugitive regional government “was not a direct threat” to the 96,000 refugees — even as international aid groups said four of their staffers had been killed, at least one in a refugee camp there.

Ethiopia’s announcement comes days after the United Nations refugee chief said the reported targeting of Eritrean refugees, if confirmed, “would be major violations of international norms.” Ethiopia has denied the involvement of Eritrean troops in the conflict, but Tigray residents who fled into Sudan have asserted that gunfire came from the direction of Eritrea as the conflict began.

Aid groups say thousands of the Eritrean refugees have fled to Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, and the Tigray capital, Mekele. Ethiopia’s government said their “unregulated movement” makes it difficult to ensure their security and provide them with aid.

Their camps are now stable and under Ethiopia’s “full control,” the statement said, adding that “transportation of food to the camps is under way.”

But communications and transport links to the Tigray region remain so challenging that the International Rescue Committee said Friday it was still trying to confirm the details around the killing of an employee in the Hitsats refugee camp in Shire town, the base of humanitarian operations for the refugee camps.

Separately, the Danish Refugee Council said three staffers who worked as guards at a project site were killed last month.

“Sadly, due to the lack of communications and ongoing insecurity in the region, it has not yet been possible to reach their families,” it said. It was not clear where they were killed, but the aid group also supports the Eritrean refugees.

The refugee camps “have had no access to services and supplies for more than a month,” the U.N. refugee agency told reporters on Friday.

“Now, more than ever, it is a matter of urgency to cease all hostilities,” the European Union’s commissioner for crisis management, Janez Lenarcic, said while condemning the killings.

Frustration remains among the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations as the Tigray region remains largely sealed off from the outside world five weeks after fighting erupted between Ethiopia’s government and the Tigray one following a months-long power struggle.

Ethiopia’s government has made clear it intends to manage the process of delivering aid to Tigray, and it has rejected “interference” as fighting is reported to be continuing despite its declaration of victory. On Friday, Ethiopia it said it had begun delivering aid to areas in Tigray under its control, including Shire and the Tigray capital, a city of a half-million people.

“Suggestions that humanitarian assistance is impeded due to active military combat in several cities and surrounding areas within the Tigray region is untrue and undermines the critical work undertaken by the National Defense Forces to stabilize the region,” Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office said, adding that sporadic gunfire should “not be misconstrued as active conflict.”

The Ethiopian and Tigray governments each regard the other as illegitimate, the result of months of growing friction since Abiy took office in 2018 and sidelined the once-dominant Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Thousands of people are thought to have been killed in the fighting, which began Nov. 4 and has threatened to destabilize the Horn of Africa. Some 6 million people live in Tigray, and about 1 million are now thought to be displaced.

The impact on civilians has been “appalling,” the U.N. human rights chief said this week.

“We have hundreds of colleagues on the ground and urgently call on all parties to the conflict to protect all civilians in Tigray,” U.N. humanitarian spokesman Saviano Abreu tweeted after the deaths of aid workers were announced.

Supply-laden trucks have waited for weeks at Tigray’s border. Ethiopia’s government says it is responsible for ensuring the security of humanitarian efforts — though the conflict and related ethnic tensions have left many ethnic Tigrayans wary of government forces.

The U.N. has stressed the need for neutral, unfettered access to the region.

“Food rations for displaced people in Tigray have run out,” the U.N. humanitarian office tweeted. “We reiterate our urgent call for unconditional and safe humanitarian access to the affected regions.”

This week, Ethiopia’s government said its forces shot at and briefly detained U.N. staffers conducting their first security assessment in Tigray, a crucial step in delivering aid. Ethiopia said the staffers had broken through checkpoints in an attempt to go where they were not allowed.

Meanwhile, nearly 50,000 Ethiopians have fled to Sudan as refugees and now live in strained conditions in a remote region with few resources.

“The recent groups coming from areas deeper inside Tigray are arriving weak and exhausted, some reporting they spent two weeks on the run inside Ethiopia as they made their way to the border,” U.N. refugee spokesman Babar Baloch said Friday. “They have told us harrowing accounts of being stopped by armed groups and robbed of their possessions. Many have spent time hiding in fields and bushes to avoid being spotted.”

Without access in Ethiopia, he said, “we are unable to verify these disturbing reports.”

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