Hundreds of aid trucks have not returned from Ethiopia’s war-torn Tigray region, and their disappearance is “the main impediment” to stepping up the humanitarian response, the United Nations said on Friday.
The UN’s World Food Program (WFP) disclosure comes amid growing fears of starvation deaths in Tigray, where the UN had previously estimated that 400,000 people faced famine-like conditions.
Since July 12, 445 non-WFP contracted trucks have entered Tigray, but only 38 have returned, WFP spokeswoman Gemma Snowdon said in a statement.
“At the moment, this is the main impediment to moving humanitarian aid to Tigray. We cannot muster large convoys due to lack of trucks,” Snowdon said.
“We continue to work with the carriers and local authorities in Tigray to get the trucks released.”
WFP does not have information on where the trucks are or what they are used for, Snowdon said.
Tigray has been mired in conflict since November, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops to overthrow the regional ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a move he claimed came in response to TPLF attacks on army camps.
The 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner promised a quick victory, but the TPLF retaken much of Tigray, including its capital Mekele, in June and Abiy later declared a humanitarian ceasefire.
‘De facto lockdown’
But the UN says Tigray remains under a “de facto blockade” and has warned of an “impending catastrophe” as the fighting drags on and spreads to neighboring regions.
Ethiopian authorities and Tigray rebels have blamed each other for obstructing humanitarian convoys trying to reach Tigray.
A government Twitter account on Thursday referred to “suspicions that TPLF (is) seizing trucks for its own logistics.”
But TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda cited the obstacles drivers face when entering Tigray from neighboring Afar region, adding that they “have nothing to do” with Tigrayan officials.
“Truck drivers commissioned by the UN complain about fuel availability, (safety) concerns, harassment at checkpoints, being stranded in Afar for months, etc.,” he said on Twitter.
A humanitarian official in Tigray, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that many truck drivers were Tigrayans and had faced ethnic harassment at checkpoints while on their way to the region.