As many as 200,000 refugees could pour into Sudan while fleeing the deadly conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, officials say, as more than 8,000 people have already crossed the border.
Long lines have appeared outside bread shops in the Tigray region, and supply-laden trucks are stranded at its borders, the United Nations humanitarian chief in the country said.
“We want to have humanitarian access as soon as possible,” Sajjad Mohammad Sajid said. “Fuel and food are needed urgently.”
Up to two million people in Tigray have a “very, very difficult time”, he said late on Tuesday, including hundreds of thousands of displaced people.
Hundreds have died in air raids and fighting since the conflict erupted a week ago, according to reports. Fears are growing that Ethiopia, a nation of 110 million, could slide into a civil war.
Under growing pressure, at least 8,000 Ethiopian refugees have crossed the now-closed border into Sudan, the state-run SUNA news agency reported. The agency, citing unidentified officials, said more than 200,000 Ethiopians were expected to cross into Sudan in the coming days.
Al Jazeera’s Hiba Morgan, reporting from the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, said authorities feared they would not be able to cope with the number of people crossing the border.
“The border [Sudanese] states of Kassala and Al Qadaraif already had camps and were hosting refugees prior to the conflict that had broken out in the Tigray region last week,” she added.
“There were already hundreds of refugees there waiting to be processed … saying the aid they were receiving was not sufficient for them.”
Communications remain almost completely severed with the Tigray region a week after Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced a military offensive in response to an alleged attack by regional forces.
He insisted there will be no negotiations with a regional government he considers illegal until its ruling “clique” is arrested and its well-stocked arsenal is destroyed.
The United Kingdom and the African Union have urged Abiy for an immediate de-escalation as the conflict threatens to destabilise the strategic but vulnerable Horn of Africa region.
Abiy is not listening to requests for mediation, diplomats and security officials in East Africa have said. “We won’t rest till this junta is brought to justice,” Abiy wrote on Twitter late on Tuesday.
The standoff leaves nearly 900 aid workers in the Tigray region from the UN and other groups struggling to contact the outside world with pleas for help.
“Nine UN agencies, almost 20 NGOs, all depending on two offices” with the means to communicate, Sajid said.
In addition, more than 1,000 people of different nationalities are stuck in the region, he said. That includes tourists. Countries urgently are seeking their evacuation.
With airports in Tigray closed, roads blocked, internet service cut off and even banks no longer operating, it “makes our life very difficult in terms of ensuring almost two million people receive humanitarian assistance”, Sajid said.
There is no sign of a lull in the fighting that has included multiple air raids by federal forces and hundreds of people reported dead on each side.
“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.”
Ethiopia’s federal government and Tigray’s regional government, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), blame each other for starting the conflict. Each regards the other as illegal.
The TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s governing coalition for years before Abiy came to office in 2018 but has since broken away while accusing the prime minister’s administration of targeting and marginalising its officials.
It remains difficult for diplomats, experts and others to very either side’s claims about the fighting.
Experts have compared this with an inter-state conflict, with each side heavily armed and well-trained. The Tigray region has an estimated quarter-million various armed fighters, and of the Ethiopian military’s six mechanised divisions, four are based in Tigray.
That is a legacy of Ethiopia’s long border war with Eritrea, which made peace after Abiy came to power but remains at bitter odds with the TPLF.
The Tigray president on Tuesday accused Eritrea of attacking his region at the request of Ethiopia, saying “the war has now progressed to a different stage”. Eritrea denied the accusation.
Residents of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region have been ordered to mobilise by authorities who say they must “defend” themselves from “flagrant aggression” from the federal government.
Once the country’s most powerful party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) that rule the Tigray region has been feuding with Prime Minister Abiy since he came to power in 2018 and promised reform nationwide.
Most recently, the TPLF defied a national ban on elections due to coronavirus. Mr Abiy responded by calling their vote illegal.
Last Wednesday, Mr Abiy ordered a military offensive after an army base in the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle, was taken over by forces loyal to the regional government of Tigray.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) declared a state of emergency to “defend the security and existence of the people of Tigray and their sovereignty”, the state broadcaster Tigray TV reported.
It relayed a government warning that “action will be taken against anyone who fails to co-operate”.
The regional authorities also repeated the accusation that neighbouring Eritrea was involved in the conflict, something both Eritrea and the federal government have denied.
The federal authorities insist their fight is against the regional government – not the Tigrayan people.
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For some, civil war has already begun
Mary Harper, BBC World Service Africa editor
This is dramatic language from the Tigrayan regional leadership. But it matches that coming from the federal authorities, who have vowed to keep fighting until what they describe as the “criminal junta” running Tigray has been “crushed”.
There has been a lot of talk of Ethiopia slipping towards civil war, with international bodies calling for a ceasefire and a negotiated way out of this crisis.
But many Ethiopians, especially those in Tigray, say their country has already sunk into war.
Thousands are fleeing a country that has been a beacon of relative stability in the crisis-prone Horn of Africa.
With both sides sticking stubbornly to war talk and little indication of any common ground for potential comprise, the fear is that the fighting will continue,
Ethiopia’s neighbours will be sucked in, and civilians, many of whom are already living in precarious conditions, will be those who pay the heaviest price.
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In other developments:
Aid agencies have warned that up to 200,000 people could flee the conflict into Sudan
Ethiopia and Eritrea have both denied that Eritrea forces are fighting alongside the Ethiopians against the Tigrayans
The Ethiopian army claims to have killed 550 Tigrayan fighters
What is behind the conflict?
The TPLF was the most powerful member of Ethiopia’s ruling coalition for many years but Mr Abiy curbed its influence after winning power in 2018 on the back of anti-government protests.
Relations got worse last year after Mr Abiy – who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for ending a two-decade conflict with – dissolved the ruling coalition, which was made up of several ethnically based regional parties.
He merged them into a single, national party, the Prosperity Party, which the TPLF refused to join.
media captionFour things that explain the crisis in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.
Tigrayan leaders say they have been unfairly targeted by purges and allegations of corruption, and say Mr Abiy is an illegitimate leader, because his mandate ran out when he postponed national elections due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The simmering row boiled over in September after the TPLF defied the nationwide ban on elections, and held a vote which was declared illegal by the central government.