Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict could force 200,000 people into Sudan

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The UN is preparing for the arrival of some 200,000 refugees in Sudan, fleeing fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, as UN aid agencies call for a temporary ceasefire to help set up humanitarian corridors to help civilians following two weeks of fighting.

“Together with all the agencies we have built a response plan for about 20,000 people,” Axel Bisschop, the UN refugee agency’s representative in Sudan, told a briefing in Geneva, as reported by the Reuters news agency.

More than 33,000 people have already escaped fighting in the Tigray region and sought shelter in neighbouring Sudan, according to the UN refugee agency. It could rise to 200,000 over a six-month period.

Hundreds of people have already died in fighting since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared war on the leadership of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), following accusations of an alleged attack against Ethiopian soldiers.

The UN refugee agency is concerned that thousands of Tigrayan refugees could overwhelm Sudan, which is already facing considerable economic and political challenges, as well as refugees fleeing other neighbouring African countries.

Babar Baloch, a spokesperson for the UN refugee agency, called for a “temporary ceasefire” to be put in place immediately so that humanitarian corridors can be established. UN aid agencies are hoping for $200m in funding to provide food and shelter for Ethiopian refugees.

Bahir Dar targeted

An attack on the Amhara regional capital announced on Friday raised fears that fighting in the Tigray region could spill over, provoking a far-reaching war.

“The illegal TPLF party has attacked Bahir Dar city tonight [Thursday] at 19:40. There is no damage,” the Amhara government communications office said, in a post shared on social media.

The TPLF targeted Asmara, the capital of neighbouring Eritrea, last week, firing rockets targeting the country’s airport.

Ethiopian forces hit a school in Mekelle, Tigray’s regional capital, with an airstrike on Thursday, according to reports from the Associated Press, citing a university official.

Ethiopia’s federal government hopes to capture Mekelle and detain the leadership of the TPLF.

An information blackout is making it difficult to verify the various claims of victories by Addis Ababa, as well as the response by forces in Tigray, pushing back Ethiopian fighters.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has described the military operation as a “law enforcement operation”, however, there are concerns the civil war risks exacerbating ethnic divides.