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Tens of thousands missing in Tigray conflict – UN

3 February 20210 comments

More than 20,000 refugees appear to be missing from two camps in Ethiopia’s war-torn Tigray region after the camps were destroyed in the region’s on-going conflict, the UN has reported.

The refugees, mostly from neighbouring Eritrea, fled from the Hitsats and Shimelba camps which were destroyed in fighting that erupted in Tigray in November. In January, satellite images showed the destruction of two refugee camps sheltering thousands of Eritreans.

Many of the refugees had fled the brutal and authoritarian regime of self-proclaimed Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki.

About 3,000 people made it to another camp in Mai-Aini, which the United Nations has access to, according to UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi.

“Many refugees were caught in crossfire, abducted and forced to return to Eritrea under duress by Eritrean forces,” Mr Grandi said.

He said he had heard witness account on a visit to the camp while on a four-day trip for meetings with officials in Ethiopia.

Ethiopian federal troops entered Tigray in response to alleged attacks by the dissident local ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) which has set itself in opposition to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed since he came to power in April 2018.

Though the government announced victory on November 28, the region’s leader has vowed to continue with the conflict that has displaced hundreds of thousands, killed thousands and threatened to destabilize the entire Horn of Africa.

“The situation in Tigray is extremely grave and urgent support is necessary to prevent the situation worsening. Our main priority is to gain access to deliver aid and protection,” Mr Grandi said.

Communications in the region remain blocked by a government shutdown of telecommunications networks. Relief agencies including the Red Cross say they have no access to areas outside major towns to deliver humanitarian aid.

Meanwhile, the new US administration has called for a probe into the reports of looting, sexual violence and assaults in the camps as experts warned the window of opportunity to gather evidence is quickly closing.

The US State Department called on Eritrea’s government to withdraw its troops from the Tigray region, following reports of atrocities by Eritrean soldiers, including the forcible return of Eritrean refugees.

The US called for an immediate halt to fighting in the region, which has caused tens of thousands of Ethiopians to flee to Sudan and hindered access for humanitarian agencies

In January, satellite images showed the destruction of UN facilities, a health-care unit, a high school and houses at two camps sheltering mostly Eritrean refugees.

The eight images were of the Hitsats and the Shimelba camps. The camps had hosted about 25,000 and 8,000 refugees respectively before the conflict broke out.