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Ethiopian PM rules out dialogue with Tigray region

Fewer people crossing into neighbouring Sudan raises concerns that people are being blocked from leaving

ETHIOPIAN Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed again ruled out dialogue with the leaders of the defiant Tigray region today but said he was willing to speak to representatives during his meeting with three African Union (AU) special envoys trying to end the deadly conflict between federal troops and the region’s forces.

The meeting came as more people fled Tigray’s capital city ahead of a promised “final phase” of the army’s offensive.

Meanwhile, the number of people managing to cross the border into Sudan has slowed to a trickle, raising concerns they are being blocked from leaving.

With transport links cut, food and other supplies are running out in Tigray, which is home to six million people, the United Nations has asked for immediate and unimpeded access for aid.

Multiple crises are growing. More than 40,000 refugees have fled for Sudan, where people struggle to give them food, shelter and care.

One humanitarian agency says hospitals in Tigray are running out of drugs. And fighting near camps of Eritrean refugees in northern Ethiopia has put them in the line of fire.

Worryingly, refugees in Sudan have said that Ethiopian forces near the border are impeding people from leaving.

Journalists at the border have reported that crossings have slowed to a trickle in recent days. Ethiopia’s government has not commented on that.

Nearly half of the refugees are children. The spread of Covid-19 is just one concern.

“We cannot keep social distancing here in the camp,” said Mohammed Rafik Nasri, from the UN refugee agency.

“It is really challenging among the several issues in need that are growing because the number is growing.

“Today we are receiving a convoy of 1,000 arriving in the camp. And shelter is one of the biggest challenges that we have at the moment.”

Scared, sometimes without word of loved ones left behind, the refugees continue to share horrific accounts of the fighting.

“The country has no peace. You see one tribe killing another. It is so hard,” said one, Atsbaha Gtsadik.

Meanwhile, some of the tens of thousands of refugees from Eritrea who are living in northern Ethiopia have been in the line of fire as fighting sweeps by them.

“Reports of conflicts around refugee camps are very concerning,” said Juliette Stevenson, a spokeswoman with the UN refugee agency. Communications and transport restrictions make it impossible to verify camp conditions, she said.

But the 96,000 Eritrean refugees “will run out of food as soon as Monday if supplies cannot reach them,” the agency said in a statement.

The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), in a rare dispatch from inside Tigray, warned that healthcare facilities were running out of drugs and other supplies and health workers need help caring for the wounded.

While travelling in western Tigray, the ICRC found a number of displaced people living in a makeshift camp without food, water or medical care.

“They told us they feared for their lives, and that they wanted safe passage out of the area.”

Its statement added: “So much is still unknown on the level of violence and subsequent suffering that people in the Tigray region have endured in just three weeks.”

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