UN reports 'unprecedented' malnutrition in Tigray

A 14-month-old child who suffers from severe acute malnutrition in Nebelet, Tigray region, Ethiopia, on July 11, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

ADDIS ABABA (AFP) - The UN has warned of "unprecedented" malnutrition among pregnant and lactating women in Ethiopia's war-hit Tigray region in a report published hours after the government sparked outrage by expelling senior UN officials.

The latest situation report from the UN's humanitarian coordination office, posted online late on Thursday (Sept 30), also described "alarming" malnutrition among children as fears of mass starvation grow nearly 11 months after northern Ethiopia erupted in conflict.

"Of the more than 15,000 pregnant and lactating women screened during the reporting period, more than 12,000 women, or about 79 per cent, were diagnosed with acute malnutrition," the report said.

The level of moderate malnutrition among children under five "is also exceeding the global emergency threshold of 15 per cent, at about 18 per cent, while cases of children with severe malnutrition is 2.4 per cent, above the alarming 2 per cent level", it said.

On Thursday, Ethiopia announced it would expel seven senior UN officials for "meddling" in its affairs, including the local heads of the UN children's agency Unicef and its humanitarian coordination office.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was "shocked" by the decision, and diplomats said an emergency UN Security Council meeting would be held behind closed doors on Friday to discuss the matter.

The UN officials were given 72 hours to leave the country.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, sent troops into Tigray last November to topple the regional ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), a move he said was in response to TPLF attacks on army camps.

Fighting ground on for months before Tigrayan rebels retook the regional capital Mekele in June and government forces largely withdrew from the region.

Since then, the TPLF has launched offensives into neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions.

Signs of 'siege'

Tigray itself is receiving only about 10 per cent of the aid it needs, and in July the UN warned that 400,000 people across the region had "crossed the threshold into famine".

The UN situation report published on Thursday said that during the week ending Tuesday, 79 aid trucks had reached Tigray from Afar.

"This brings the number of humanitarian trucks that entered the region since July 12 to 606 trucks, or 11 per cent of the trucks needed," it said.

An emergency food distribution centre in Ethiopia's Tigray region on June 26, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Federal officials blame the TPLF for obstructing deliveries, but a US State Department spokesman told AFP last week that access to essential supplies and services was "being denied by the Ethiopian government" and that there were "indications of a siege".

In September, the UN sounded the alarm over hundreds of aid trucks it said had "not returned" from Tigray, though the TPLF said this was due to obstructions drivers faced while entering from Afar, currently home to the only viable road route into Tigray.

Thursday's report said 35 empty trucks had returned to Afar from the Tigray capital Mekele to transport more food stock.

The UN has been able to operate 17 passenger flights from Addis Ababa to Mekele since July.

However, the EU humanitarian air bridge - initially expected to provide fairly regular service - has only been able to operate one flight since it was inaugurated on Sept 11.

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