The first international aid convoy arrived Saturday in the capital of Ethiopia's Tigray region since fighting broke out more than a month ago, triggering a refugee crisis and humanitarian disaster.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said seven trucks brought medicines and medical equipment for 400 wounded as well as relief supplies to Mekele, a city of half a million that had been all-but cut off to foreign aid since the conflict began on November 4.
"It is the first international aid to arrive in Mekele since fighting erupted in Tigray more than one month ago," the Geneva-based ICRC said, describing health care facilities in the city as "paralysed".
Patrick Youssef, ICRC regional director for Africa, said the supplies would "reduce those impossible life-or-death triage decisions" for doctors and nurses in Mekele who had endured for weeks without running water and electricity, let alone essential medicines.
The convoy arrived as the United Nations expressed growing alarm over the plight of nearly 100,000 Eritrean refugees in Tigray and appealed for urgent access to assist them and 600,000 others dependent on food rations.
Ethiopia had restricted access to Tigray, and a communications blackout has made it difficult to evaluate the humanitarian situation on the ground.
Aid groups have been warning for weeks of a looming hunger crisis as food rations dwindled, and life-saving relief was repeatedly delayed.
- Disturbing reports -
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of last year's Nobel Peace Prize, on Friday said his government would be in charge of handling the humanitarian response and access to Tigray, and that Ethiopia had this week dispatched tonnes of food and other relief supplies by trucks to Mekele and other cities in the region.
Addis Ababa has rejected suggestions that outsiders might play a leading role in the relief effort and an agreement last week to allow the UN and aid agencies access to Tigray foundered, deepening international alarm, before another deal was announced on Wednesday.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR said Friday it still has not been able to reach four camps for Eritrean refugees since the announcement of a major military offensive against forces loyal to the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).
Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said the UNHCR had received "an overwhelming number of disturbing reports" of refugees being killed or kidnapped and forcibly returned to Eritrea, a secretive country bordering Tigray to the north.
"If confirmed, these actions would constitute a major violation of international law," Grandi said.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Saturday that "any act of refoulement or forced return should be prevented" and urged that aid groups be given "immediate, unhindered and unrestricted" access to Tigray.
The International Rescue Committee said Friday that one of its staff was killed last month at an Eritrean refugee camp in Tigray. The Danish Refugee Council, which also assists Eritreans, said three of its guards were killed, but did not specify where.
- 'Harm and hunger' -
Ethiopia said Friday it was returning "misinformed" Eritrean refugees headed for Addis Ababa back to Tigray to receive aid and live "lawfully and peacefully".
"Forcibly sending Eritrean refugees back to camps in Tigray places them at unnecessary risk of harm and hunger," Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director for Human Rights Watch, said Saturday.
The UN migration agency IOM has denied its buses were used to transport refugees "to an unknown destination" and rejected allegations that Eritreans were being held at one of its transit centres in Addis Ababa and processed for forcible return.
The International Organization for Migration said it was "extremely concerned" by reports of Eritreans being relocated against their will and "does not under any circumstances conduct the forced return of migrants and refugees".
It said one of its three transit centres in Addis Ababa was "taken over" by Ethiopian authorities on December 3 and that IOM "had no management authority, oversight or involvement in any activities undertaken by the authorities in the centre since that time".
In a sign of the depth of tensions over where and how aid agencies should operate in Tigray, a UN team trying to visit an Eritrean refugee camp on December 6 was shot at by Ethiopian forces and briefly detained.
A government spokesman said the team ignored instructions and checkpoints on "a kind of adventurous expedition".
Abiy declared the fighting in Tigray over on November 28, saying the army had captured Mekele from the TPLF, and has dismissed reports of ongoing clashes as "sporadic gunfire".
Thousands have been killed, according to the International Crisis Group, and around 50,000 people have fled to refugee camps across the border in Sudan.
The United States on Friday cited "credible reports" that Eritrean forces had entered Tigray, and urged them to withdraw. Ethiopia has repeatedly denied Eritrean involvement.
The TPLF dominated Ethiopian politics for nearly three decades and fought a brutal 1998-2000 border war with Eritrea that left tens of thousands dead. Abiy came to power in 2018 and won the Nobel Peace Prize the following year in large part for his effort to initiate a rapprochement with Eritrea.