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'Dire' suffering continues in Ethiopia war, EU envoy says

  • Finnish foreign minister Pekka Haavisto (r) briefed EU colleagues on Monday (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Fighting in Ethiopia's Tigray region is "dire", with ongoing ethnic cleansing and sexual violence, Finnish foreign minister Pekka Haavisto has said, after returning from his second trip to the Horn of Africa.

"The security situation in Tigray remains dire and active hostilities and fighting have been reported in various areas," Haavisto told EUobserver on Tuesday (20 April).

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"The growing number of ... persons who have been forcefully displaced from western Tigray is alarming and the displacement is primarily taking place on ethnic grounds," he said.

"Sexual and gender-based violence has also been used systematically," he added.

The minister spoke after visiting Ethiopia and neighbouring countries between 3 and 10 April in his second fact-finding mission there as an EU special envoy.

The first time he went, in February, he focused on appealing to authorities in Addis Ababa to let international monitors and aid workers into Tigray.

But this time, Haavisto also travelled to Tigrayan capital-city Mekelle, where he visited a local hospital and refugee camp and spoke to victims of violence face-to-face.

Access for aid workers had "improved" over the past two months, he noted.

"Nevertheless, the humanitarian situation remains very difficult, with growing needs," he said.

"The volatile situation and fighting on the ground continue to restrict the humanitarian response. There remains a strong need to urge all parties about the need to respect international humanitarian law and international refugee law," he said.

The Ethiopian government, which had previously denied reports of large-scale fighting and of starving people in Tigray, was also more open to talk, Haavisto added.

"The discussions, also on sensitive issues, were constructive. All interlocutors expressed a willingness to continue their dialogue with the EU," the Finnish top diplomat said, after meeting Ethiopian president Sahle-Work Zewde and deputy prime minister and foreign minister Demeke Mekonnen.

But the war still threatened to destabilise Ethiopia and create a new "migration crisis", which could see increased numbers of people fleeing and moving onward to Europe, Haavisto told this website.

"The situation in Tigray and neighbouring regions remains a major concern to stability for Ethiopia and there is a risk of a complicated and protracted crisis leading to a humanitarian disaster," he said.

"Due to the conflict, there are both IDPs [internally displaced persons] and refugees in neighbouring countries. It is crucial to prevent a possible migration crisis at the outset," he added.

Haavisto spoke to EUobserver after briefing EU foreign ministers in a video-conference on Monday.

And his comments were echoed by EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell, who told press in Brussels that Eritrean forces were also still fighting in Tigray, even though Eritrea and Ethiopia had, in the past, denied they were there.

EU monitors

Ethiopia is planning to hold elections in August.

And Haavisto discussed "political solutions" to the conflict, which began last November, after local powers in Tigray defied Addis Ababa's federal authority.

Borrell said the EU wanted to send an election-observation mission, if conditions allowed.

But the vote should be preceded by a "national dialogue" on the war, Borrell said, adding that, even in the best-case scenario, no elections could take place in Tigray due to the amount of damage there.

The EU has already withheld budgetary aid to Ethiopia over its conduct in the civil war.

It has also threatened to impose visa-bans and asset-freezes on Ethiopian officials if they blocked access to UN workers bringing food and medical supplies.

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