Eritrean soldiers are blocking and looting food aid in Ethiopia's war-hit Tigray region, according to government documents obtained by AFP, stoking fears of starvation deaths as fighting nears the six-month mark.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray in November to detain and disarm leaders of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the regional ruling party that once dominated national politics.
He said the move came in response to TPLF attacks on army camps and that fighting would be over quickly.
But as the war drags on, world leaders are increasingly concerned about what US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday called an impending humanitarian "disaster" -- and the role of Eritrean troops in exacerbating it.
Those concerns have been echoed in multiple presentations given to aid groups this month by the Emergency Coordination Centre of Tigray's Abiy-appointed interim government -- copies of which AFP has reviewed.
The most recent presentation, dated April 23, says Eritrean soldiers had forced aid workers providing food relief out of multiple parts of Tigray, including the areas of Samre and Gijet south of the regional capital Mekele.
It says, in broken English, that Eritrean soldiers have also started showing up at food distribution points in Tigray, looting the supplies after "our beneficiaries became frightened and (ran) away."
An official who attended the April 23 presentation, and who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said aid workers were visibly frustrated over their inability to access parts of the region.
"Some of the NGO workers were crying because of the systemic denial... some of them were screaming, crying," the official said, adding that government officials coordinating relief efforts were also fed up.
- Checkpoints blocked -
Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 in large part for his rapprochement with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, ending a stalemate stemming from a brutal border war fought from 1998 to 2000.
But Isaias' government and the TPLF remained bitter enemies.
For months after the Tigray war broke out, Addis Ababa and Asmara denied troops from neighbouring Eritrea were involved.
Abiy finally acknowledged their role in late March and said soon after they would withdraw.
In a phone call with Abiy Monday, Blinken again pressed for the Eritreans to leave, saying they were "contributing to the growing humanitarian disaster."
Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel denied allegations of aid obstruction on Tuesday.
He told AFP in an email that his country did not block food aid to Ethiopia during the border war two decades ago and had no intention of starting now.
"No way that Eritrea can block humanitarian assistance or loot them," he said.
But General Yohannes Gebremeskel Tesfamariam, head of a command post in Tigray, told AFP Tuesday that in the "last two weeks we had access problems to pass some of the checkpoints, especially controlled by Eritreans".
He referenced a critical checkpoint linking the towns of Adigrat and Axum as an example.
"We have sent our staff to talk to the Eritrean commanders who are commanding those troops at the checkpoint. We are waiting to hear the reply," Yohannes said.
- Hunger deaths -
The Tigray government documents obtained by AFP also cite aid obstruction by special forces from Ethiopia's Amhara region, which has made no secret of its intention to annex western and southern Tigray.
The April 23 presentation said five areas in southern Tigray were facing "a very critical situation and need immediate food assistance."
However, it added, "they are under Amhara military forces and they obstructed their movement too," referring to the transport of food aid.
One of the areas, known as Ofla, was cited in a UN Security Council briefing on April 16 by Mark Lowcock, the undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, who said he had received a report of 150 people dying from hunger there.
AFP could not confirm that figure.
A Tigray government presentation dated April 9 said that in Ofla "around 8 people died because of hunger."
Subsequent presentations have not included death tolls.
Fighting in Tigray disrupted the harvest in a region that was already food insecure.
Abiy's government said in mid-April that no one had died from hunger during the war.