Biden says humanitarian access must be granted in Ethiopia's Tigray region

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FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden visits Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) headquarters to receive a briefing on the Atlantic hurricane season

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden called on Wednesday for the withdrawal of Eritrean and Amhara forces from Ethiopia's Tigray region and said immediate humanitarian access must be granted to avoid widespread famine in the conflict-torn area.

Thousands have been killed and about 2 million people forced from their homes in Tigray after conflict erupted between the Tigray People's Liberation Front and the Ethiopian military last November. Troops from the neighboring region of Amhara and the nation of Eritrea entered the war to support the government.

"Belligerents in the Tigray region should declare and adhere to a ceasefire, and Eritrean and Amhara forces should withdraw," Biden said in a statement.

The president said Ethiopian and Eritrean forces "must allow immediate, unimpeded humanitarian access to the region in order to prevent widespread famine."

The Ethiopian prime minister's spokeswoman, the foreign office spokesman and the head of a government taskforce on Tigray did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said 91% of the Tigray region's population of nearly 6 million were in need of aid.

U.N. aid chief Mark Lowcock urged the Security Council and countries on Tuesday "to take any steps possible to prevent a famine from occurring," according to a note seen by Reuters.

"It is clear that people living in the Tigray region are now facing significantly heightened food insecurity as a result of conflict, and that conflict parties are restricting access to food," Lowcock told the 15-member council in the note.

"There is a serious risk of famine if assistance is not scaled up in the next two months,” he said.

Biden said large-scale human rights abuses were taking place in Tigray, including "widespread sexual violence."

U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeff Feltman will return to the region next week, Biden said.

Ethiopia said last week it had put soldiers on trial for killing civilians and rape, although the court records were not yet public. On Wednesday, the government also accused the TPLF of killing or kidnapping 42 members of the federally-appointed interim administration in Tigray.

This week, residents reported that Ethiopia and Eritrean soldiers have raided camps for displaced families in the Tigrayan town of Shire, taking away hundreds of civilians.

(Reporting by Eric Beech and Michelle Nichols; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Peter Cooney)

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