Ethiopia's Tigrayan rebels deny looting food for starving children

Volunteers load food supplies on a truck, destined for troops battling Tigrayan rebels, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Nov 30, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

NAIROBI (AFP) - Tigrayan rebels on Friday (Dec 10) denied having looted any food stocks, including items for malnourished children, in the northern Ethiopian town of Kombolcha.

The denial came a day after UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the World Food Programme (WFP) had suspended food distribution after "massive looting of warehouses in Kombolcha in recent days, apparently by some Tigrayan rebels and members of the local population".

He said "large amounts of food, including nutritional products for malnourished children" had been stolen.

The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) in a statement late on Friday said these were "unfounded accusations".

"At no time during their stay in Kombolcha have the Tigrayan forces looted aid intended for those in desperate need," said the TPLF, adding it was committed to protecting humanitarian aid stocks.

Instead, the TPLF accused "UN agencies, and particularly the WFP" of having "dragged its feet" in distributing humanitarian aid.

"The result of aid agencies' inability to live up to their humanitarian ideals was predictable: once our forces began to withdraw from the city, raids on aid warehouses became an easy game for locals," it said.

The Ethiopian government on Monday said it had taken over the towns of Dessie and Kombolcha, located at a strategic crossroads in the Amhara region, from the TPLF rebels.

The Tigrayan rebels claim to have left these towns as part of strategic withdrawals.

War in northern Ethiopia erupted in November 2020 after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent the army to the northern Tigray region to remove local authorities from the TPLF who challenged his authority and whom he accused of having attacked military bases.

The rebels recaptured most of Tigray at the end of June, then advanced into the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara.

The more than 13 months of conflict have plunged 9.4 million people "into a critical situation of food assistance" in the regions of Tigray, Afar and Amhara, the United Nations says.

The UN estimates that 5.2 million people are in need of emergency food aid in Tigray, 534,000 in Afar and 3.7 million in Amhara.

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