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Concern grows for civilians in Mekelle as Ethiopia battles Tigray rebels

Concern grows for civilians in Mekelle as Ethiopia battles Tigray rebels
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Nariman El-Mofty/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.


The Ethiopian army has blocked one of the main roads leading to its border with Sudan, preventing Ethiopians fleeing the war in Tigray from reaching the neighboring country, according to refugees who arrived Thursday at the Lugdi border crossing in eastern Sudan.

"The Ethiopian army has cut the road leading to the Sudanese border at the locality of Humera (20 km from the border) and those seeking to reach Sudan must avoid the main road and pass through the fields without being seen by soldiers," Tesfai Burhano, who had just arrived in Lugdi, told AFP.

On Thursday, the border post was empty and no Ethiopian soldiers were visible. An AFP reporter saw about ten refugees crossing the border while he was there.

The number of Ethiopian refugees fleeing to Sudan has dropped significantly over the past week, according to figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). On Wednesday, the UN agency counted 718 arrivals, compared to 3,813 on November 21.

Communications are cut in Tigray, making it difficult to verify some claims. 

A Sudanese security official confirmed the drop in refugee arrivals to AFP, without giving any explanation.

Aid given to 'liberated areas'

The United Nations on Thursday said Tigray region was experiencing 'critical shortages' of food, fuel, and cash. 

But Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's office said on Thursday that the federal government had begun distributing food and other relief items in areas controlled by the national army.

“This humanitarian assistance will now be further reinforced with the opening of a humanitarian access route to be managed under the auspices of the Ministry of Peace”, said a statement from Abiy's office. 

According to the UNHCR, 42,651 refugees have arrived in Sudan since the start of the deadly conflict in Tigray, 70% of them via Hamdayit, in the Sudanese province of Kassala, the rest via Gadarif.

Battle for Mekelle 

Reports said heavy battles raged Thursday for control of Mekelle, capital of Tigray state. Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the region's governing had reportedly mobilized and armed thousands of men. 

The Tigray region of northern Ethiopia has been the scene of fierce fighting since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military operation there on November 4, accusing leaders of the Tigray People's Liberation Front of seeking to destabilize the federal government and of attacking two Ethiopian military bases in the region, which the Tigrayan authorities deny.