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Ethiopian People joining the Defense Forces gather in Meskel Square, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

The European Union on Tuesday urged Ethiopia’s government to lift restrictions on fuel supplies to the war-wracked Tigray region, warning that shortages were crippling the distribution of emergency aid.

The 19-month conflict between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and Tigrayan rebels has driven hundreds of thousands of people to the brink of famine and left more than nine million in need of food aid, according to the United Nations.

After the government announced a “humanitarian truce” in March, aid convoys have slowly made their way to Tigray for the first time since mid-December.

But fuel shortages due to government restrictions have severely limited access to life-saving supplies, even as aid warehouses are full, the EU’s commissioner for crisis management, Janez Lenarcic, said after a visit to Tigray’s capital Mekele.

“More fuel is needed because without it, even this food assistance that comes to Mekele cannot reach rural areas, where the needs are highest,” the EU envoy told a press conference in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa.

“Now we have a situation where humanitarian warehouses in Mekele are full, but people out there in the countryside are still hungry,” he added.

Tigrayans have spent several months without access to basic services such as electricity, telecommunications, internet and banking.

The situation in hospitals was especially critical, Lenarcic said, pointing to both the absence of electricity and the lack of fuel.

“You know what happens when life-saving machines do not operate because there’s no electricity and there is no fuel for generators,” he said.

“I fail to see the military rationale behind the blockade of electricity, banking services,” he said, urging the government to restore access immediately.

The conflict has driven a wedge between Ethiopia and Western nations, with the United States ending preferential trading status for its longtime ally.

The European Union announced in December 2020 that it was postponing some 90 million euros ($110 million) in aid to Ethiopia over its failure to grant full humanitarian access to Tigray.

Last week, Abiy said he was open to the possibility of peace negotiations with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

The conflict began in November 2020 when the government sent federal troops into Tigray to topple the TPLF, the region’s former ruling party, saying it was in response to rebel attacks on army camps.

After the TPLF mounted a shock comeback, retaking Tigray and then expanding into the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara, fighting intensified in the second half of 2021, before reaching a stalemate. 

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