U.N. says Ethiopia to ease blockade of aid for Tigray, but no official agreement in sight

The United Nations says the Ethiopian government promises to ease its de facto blockade on the northern territory of Tigray, where hundreds of thousands are facing famine after a year of conflict. Nick Schifrin has the story.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The conflict in Ethiopia has become one of the most brutal on Earth, threatening the very existence of the state and the lives of millions — a major weapon in that war, hunger.

    But, tonight, the United Nations tells the "PBS NewsHour" that the Ethiopian government promises to ease its de facto blockade on the northern territory of Tigray, where hundreds of 1000s are facing famine.

    Nick Schifrin has the story.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On Tigray TV, Tigrayan forces and their allies advance south. And as they get closer to Addis Ababa, the capital and the country are increasingly at risk.

    But while the Ethiopian government says Addis and its bustling markets are safe and rallies residents to decry what it calls fake news, the international community fears for the future, as Secretary of State Tony Blinken said today.

    Anthony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State: I am very concerned about the potential for Ethiopia to implode.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The crisis began last November, when Tigrayan forces who used to run the country attacked a federal outpost. Federal forces and their allies from neighboring Eritrea and the Amhara region waged a scorched-earth campaign and occupied parts of Tigray.

    But in late June, Tigrayan forces pushed federal Ethiopian soldiers out and kept going from Tigray into neighboring Amhara and Afar, and now toward the capital. They allied with the small Oromo Liberation Army, seized two key towns, and are within 200 miles of Addis Ababa.

  • Martin Griffiths, U.N. Undersecretary For Humanitarian Affairs:

    The threat to Addis is an existential threat to the country. An attack on Addis is not that unlikely. And it's a very, very, very dire prospect.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Martin Griffiths is the U.N.'s top humanitarian official, who just returned from a trip to Ethiopia. He visited during furious diplomatic efforts between the two sides, led by U.S. Special Envoy Jeff Feltman and African Union envoy and former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who this week addressed the U.N. Security Council.

  • Olusegun Obasanjo, Former Nigerian President:

    The window of opportunity we have is very little, and that the time is short.

  • Martin Griffiths:

    He's trying to get an agreement of the simplest and most immediate kind. That's why he talks about a halt to the fighting. He's not talking about a cease-fire. He's talking about a halt, to stop, knock it off now, a pause, so that humanitarian assistance can be delivered.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That humanitarian assistance is needed desperately. The U.S. says as many as 900,000 Tigrayans face famine, hospitals are running out of medicine, and there are hundreds of victims of rape.

  • Martin Griffiths:

    The women are still, after these many, many months, so traumatized that it's difficult for them to speak.

    We said to the women, what do you want for your children? The answer that they gave us was, we want food.

    They have no horizon beyond survival, beyond tomorrow. They weren't even thinking about a future. They were thinking about today. And I think that was perhaps the most shocking example of the depth of need in Tigray.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Griffiths has been a humanitarian for decades, and visited many of the world's worst humanitarian crises. but he says, Tigray is among the worst, because of the war's expansion, and what the U.N. calls a de facto blockade by the Ethiopian government.

  • Martin Griffiths:

    The distress of those women is a distress you see across the province. That's why the desperation for humanitarian agencies is to try to get food and medicine and supplies and therapy and counseling and safety to those people who've suffered far too much and who are, of course, utterly innocent.

    I think Ethiopia is the most alarming place in the world at the moment. And Tigray is probably the worst place in the world to live in right now.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And yet, earlier this month, the Ethiopian government detained 70 truck drivers under U.N. contract who would have been delivering aid, and 22 U.N. staff and their families, before releasing 12 of them.

    The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry accused the U.N. workers of participating in terror and disrespecting the country's laws.

    Dina Mufti, Spokesperson, Ethiopian Minister of Foreign Affairs (through translator): They are not in space. They are in Ethiopia. They have to respect Ethiopia's law, one by one. If they don't respect the law of the land, they will be legally held accountable.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Ethiopian government has said that they are detained because of — quote — "participation in terror."

    Has the government provided any evidence of that?

  • Martin Griffiths:

    No. They were doing their jobs and carrying out their responsibilities to the United Nations.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This week, Amnesty International accused Tigrayan forces of gang rape, looting, and physical assaults. The U.N. says all sides have committed unprecedented brutality.

    But, finally, a possible positive step: The Ethiopian government told Griffiths that aid will be allowed into Tigray.

  • Martin Griffiths:

    The deputy prime minister and foreign minister of Ethiopia gave us, me included, his decision to allow the trucks to move.

    Well, let's see. Let's let's hope it happens. But the problem is this. The war is going on, and the war is threatening Addis. Stopping the fighting is the imperative right now.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But, tonight, there's no official agreement to stop the fighting or allow the aid in that millions of people so desperately need.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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