The Ethiopian Red Cross said Wednesday that 80 percent of the country's conflict-hit Tigray region was cut off from humanitarian assistance and warned tens of thousands could starve to death.
The grim assessment underscores fears of a humanitarian catastrophe three months after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the 2019 Nobel Peace laureate, announced military operations aimed at toppling the region's former ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).
"Eighty percent of the Tigray is unreachable at this particular time," the president of the Ethiopian Red Cross Society, Abera Tola, told a press conference.
Some starvation deaths have already been reported and the figures could climb fast, he said.
"The number today could be one, two or three, but you know after a month it means thousands. After two months it will be tens of thousands," he said.
Abiy has said the military campaign in Tigray responded to TPLF-orchestrated attacks on federal army camps.
In late November he declared victory after federal forces entered the Tigrayan capital Mekele.
But humanitarian workers and diplomats say continued insecurity has hampered the aid response.
Abera said Wednesday that aid access remained largely restricted to main roads north and south of Mekele, excluding most rural areas.
Displaced civilians who have managed to reach camps in Tigrayan towns are "emaciated", he said.
"You see their skin is really on their bones. You don't see any food in their body," he said.
"Sometimes it is also really difficult to help them without some kind of high nutritional value foods."
The Ethiopian Red Cross now estimates that around 3.8 million of Tigray's roughly six million people need humanitarian assistance, up from an earlier estimate of 2.4 million, Abera said.
The government has said it is working with the UN and international organisations to grant greater aid access as the security situation allows.
- 'Extremely dire' -
The head of the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) said at the weekend he had reached a deal with Ethiopian authorities to expand access for aid workers and "scale up" operations in Tigray.
The country's peace minister, Muferihat Kamil, said in a separate statement the government was "moving with urgency to approve requests for international staff movements into and within Tigray."
The UN on Monday received approvals for 25 international staff to be deployed to Tigray, but this is just "a first step," Saviano Abreu, a spokesman for the UN humanitarian coordination office, told AFP Wednesday.
"The situation on the ground is extremely dire and needs have outpaced our capacity to respond. Unfortunately, we are still waiting for the approval for another 49 NGO and UN staff that are in Addis ready to deploy to Tigray," Abreu said.
A deal signed last year by the UN and the government restricted UN access to areas under government control, a provision the remains in effect.
It is unclear exactly how much of Tigray's territory is controlled by federal forces, but UN officials estimate it is between 60 and 80 percent.
The European Union announced in December it was postponing nearly 90 million euros ($109 million) in budget support payments to Ethiopia, partly over humanitarian access restrictions.
Ethiopia's foreign ministry on Tuesday issued a statement saying it was "deeply concerned" about statements out of Brussels about the situation in Tigray.
"As has been stated time and again in many of the Government's communications and briefings given to the international community, access to many of the humanitarian actors has been given to many of the places in Tigray under a government-led process," the statement said.