EU envoy warns Ethiopia Tigray crisis ‘out of control’

File photo. An Ethiopian refugee woman with her child from Tigray region wait to receive aid at the Um Rakuba refugee camp, the same camp that hosted Ethiopian refugees during the famine in the 1980s, some 80 kilometers from the Ethiopian-Sudan border in Sudan, 1 December 2020. [Ala Kheir/EPA/EFE]

Finland’s Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto warned Tuesday (23 February) that the crisis in Ethiopia’s conflict-hit Tigray region appears “out of control”, after visiting the country on behalf of the EU.

“You have come to the situation which is militarily and human rights-wise, humanitarian-wise very out of control,” Haavisto told journalists in Brussels.

Tigray has been the theatre of fighting since early November 2020, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced military operations against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), accusing them of attacking federal army camps.

He declared victory after pro-government troops took regional capital Mekele in late November, though the TPLF vowed to fight on, and clashes have persisted in the region, hampering efforts to deliver humanitarian assistance.

“This operation has lasted more than three months, and we do not see the end,” Haavisto said.

Finland’s top diplomat visited Addis Ababa this month — including meetings with Nobel Prize winner Abiy — on a fact-finding mission for EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.

He briefed foreign ministers from the bloc’s 27 nations on the crisis at a meeting on Monday.

Haavisto told journalists that Ethiopia’s leadership had failed to provide a “clear picture” of the situation in Tigray — including the widely documented involvement of forces from neighbouring Eritrea.

“The question of Eritrean troops is extremely sensitive, so we don’t get the clear answer about the whereabouts or magnitude of the Eritrean troops,” he said.

Addis Ababa and Asmara both deny that Eritrean forces are involved in the conflict, contradicting eyewitness reports from civilians, aid workers and some military and government officials in Tigray.

The EU has joined the United States in demanding Eritrean troops withdraw.

Haavisto repeated urgent calls from the international community for the Ethiopian government to grant full humanitarian access to Tigray, including areas beyond its control.

“What we need from the Ethiopian government is the greenlight to the humanitarian community to negotiate access to the Eritrean-controlled areas, to the opposition-controlled areas,” he said.

The UN says that areas where 80% of the region’s population live remain cut off from assistance and tens of thousands have fled across the border into neighbouring Sudan.

Haavisto warned that Sudan is struggling to cope with the influx and that it risked spiralling into a new driver for refugees towards Europe.

“We are seeing the beginning of one more potentially big refugee crisis in the world,” Haavisto said.

“If you don’t influence it now then the circumstances will build so that there are more and more refugees coming.”

In December, Brussels announced it was postponing some €90 million in aid to Ethiopia over its failure to grant full humanitarian access to Tigray.

Insecurity holds up aid to Ethiopia's Tigray region, aid workers say

Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region is too volatile for aid to reach hundreds of thousands of civilians in need, humanitarian workers said on Sunday (6 December), amid reports of persistent fighting, looting and lawlessness.

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