By Katharine Houreld
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) -A United Nations team visiting refugees in Ethiopia's war-hit Tigray region had failed to stop at two checkpoints when it was shot at over the weekend, the government said on Tuesday, proclaiming it did not need a "baby-sitter".
The U.N. security team was seeking access to the Shimelba camp for Eritrean refugees when they were fired at on Sunday. U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said there were four people in the U.N. team assessing roads in the area for aid deliveries.
"These are alarming reports and we are engaging at the highest level with the federal government to express our concern and avoid any such incidents in the future," said Dujarric, adding that Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had spoken with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Monday.
Abiy's army has battled the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) in the northern region since Nov. 4.
Thousands are feared dead and the U.N. estimates that more than 950,000 people have been displaced by the conflict, around 50,000 of them into neighbouring Sudan. The Ethiopian government did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the U.N. estimate.
Redwan Hussein, spokesman for the Ethiopian government's task force for Tigray, told reporters that the U.N. team passed through two checkpoints without stopping while driving hastily to an unauthorized area.
"When they were about to break the third one, they were shot at and detained," he said.
Two diplomatic sources told Reuters the U.N. team encountered uniformed Eritrean troops, though both Ethiopia and Eritrea have denied any incursion over the border by President Isaias Afwerki's military.
Abiy and Afwerki signed a peace pact ending two decades of hostilities in 2018 and now regard the TPLF as a mutual foe.
Ethiopia's army has captured the regional capital Mekelle and declared victory, but TPLF leaders say they are fighting back on various fronts around the highland city.
"There are a few remnants of the militia or special forces not yet controlled ... kind of hooligans, outlaws," Redwan said.
ETHIOPIA: 'WE CALL THE SHOTS'
Most communications in Tigray are down and access to the area is severely restricted, making it hard to verify either side's statements. It was not immediately possible to reach the TPLF for comment on the latest government statements.
The United Nations and aid agencies are pressing for safe access to Tigray, which is home to more than 5 million people and where 600,000 relied on food aid even before the conflict.
"The agreement we entered with the U.N. was in the belief that the U.N. would coordinate with us but the government would call the shots," Redwan said, emphasizing that Ethiopia was capable of helping its own people.
He also said the government would investigate any reports of atrocities or mass killings and allow independent probes if needed. "Ethiopia is being run by a strong functional government," he added. "It doesn't need a babysitter."
Dujarric told reporters in New York that talks on aid access were continuing with the Ethiopian government. "Are we getting unfettered, clear, humanitarian access at this point - no," said Dujarric.
In Mekelle, a doctor reached by Reuters said the hospital where he works was "totally non-functional" due to lack of electricity, fuel for generators, oxygen and medical supplies. Medics were unable to perform emergency surgery or effectively treat patients for problems such as childbirth complications and diabetes.
"Patients are dying outside and inside the hospital," he wrote in a message, saying that he was aware of three women who died after delivering babies at home and an infant on a ventilator who died because there was no oxygen.
Ethiopian federal troops were inside the hospital and have not intimidated medical staff or looted, the doctor added.
'PEOPLE CAN NO LONGER WAIT'
The government has said it was delivering aid in areas that it controlled, but relief agencies are increasingly frustrated at the difficult access to Tigray.
The Norwegian Refugee Council said it had waited weeks for clearance to deliver food, shelters and other essentials.
"Children, women and men in Tigray have now borne the brunt of this conflict for more than a month without any emergency assistance from outside the region," it said.
"These people can no longer be made to wait. Aid must not be left at a standstill."
(Reporting by Katharine Houreld; Additional reporting by Emma Farge in Geneva and Michelle Nichols in New York; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne and Maggie Fick; Editing by Philippa Fletcher, Alex Richardson and Lisa Shumaker)