UN condemns 'dangerous' claims of bias against aid workers in Tigray

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The UN's humanitarian chief on Tuesday condemned as "dangerous" accusations by Ethiopian government officials that aid workers were biased in favour of -- and even arming -- rebel forces in war-hit Tigray.

Martin Griffiths also called for access to allow desperately needed aid into the region where the UN says hundreds of thousands of people are suffering from famine.

"Blanket accusations of humanitarian aid workers need to stop," he said during a press conference at the end of a six-day visit to Ethiopia, his first mission in his new role.

"They are unfair, they are unconstructive, they need to be backed up by evidence if there is any and, frankly, it's dangerous."

At least a dozen aid workers have been killed since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into the northern region of Tigray in November to topple its ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).

They include one Spanish and two Ethiopian staff members from Doctors Without Borders who were slain in June, prompting the medical charity to suspend operations in some parts of the region.

In mid-July a senior government official, Redwan Hussein, accused some aid groups of "arming the other side", meaning the TPLF, but gave no details.

- 'We need the war to end' -

Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, has said the military operations in Tigray came in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps.

Though he vowed victory would be swift, the war took a stunning turn in late June when pro-TPLF forces retook the regional capital Mekele and the army largely withdrew.

Aid workers have complained that, even though Abiy declared a humanitarian ceasefire, aid access in Tigray is as bad as ever, hobbled by insecurity and bureaucratic hurdles.

As of last week only one 50-truck convoy of aid supplies had been able to enter Tigray since Mekele fell, although Griffiths said Tuesday that additional trucks had entered the region via the one open land route from the east.

The route involves multiple checkpoints at which staff have been "interrogated, intimidated and in some instances detained", the UN said last week.

Griffiths' own two-day trip to Tigray was delayed when his plane and everyone on board -- including Griffiths himself -- were searched in a process that took five hours, two humanitarian officials told AFP Tuesday.

At Tuesday's press conference, Griffiths reiterated the UN's estimate that 100 aid trucks need to reach the region each day to meet demand in Tigray.

"To make this work we need to change the circumstances that have seen trucks moving in rather slowly," he said.

"We need assured access routes by land as well as, of course, our own flights going in and out of Mekele. And frankly we need the war to end."

He also said at least two land routes into the region were likely needed but acknowledged the "difficulty" of establishing a cross-border route via Sudan.

Mitiku Kassa, head of Ethiopia's disaster response agency, on Tuesday denounced "pressure by some Westerners and their institutions to have a corridor opened" from Sudan into western Tigray.

- 'Huge, urgent' needs -

Since the rebels retook Mekele, they have launched a new offensive into neighbouring Afar and Amhara regions.

The government has said the rebels' offensive proves they are responsible for hampered aid delivery.

Griffiths stressed Tuesday that the government was "the ultimate, primary actor" in ensuring that aid can reach those in need.

Currently, he said, "we're nowhere near meeting the obligations. We are at the moment delivering an inadequate response to the task in front of us."

The UN says fighting in Tigray has pushed 400,000 people into famine conditions, while its children's agency estimated last week that more than 100,000 children in Tigray could suffer from life-threatening acute malnutrition in the next 12 months -- 10 times the annual average.

"The needs that have been spoken about in Tigray are indeed what they have been advertised as," Griffiths said.

"They are huge, they are urgent, they are important and now the needs are growing in Afar and Amhara."

Wednesday marks nine months since the first shots of the war were fired.