US aid chief Samantha Power said Wednesday that only 10 percent of required humanitarian aid was reaching Ethiopia's war-hit Tigray region, as access remained hobbled by security woes and bureaucratic hurdles.
Her comments painted a stark picture of what she described as an "alarming humanitarian catastrophe" in the northern region nine months after fighting broke out between rebels and troops loyal to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.
"Between mid-July and August 2, according to the UN, what were needed was 1,500 trucks and the number of trucks that rolled in and were able to pass is 153. That's 10 percent of needs," Power told reporters during a visit to Ethiopia, adding that the response was "not sufficient."
Among the barriers are procedural obstacles imposed by the government, Power said, echoing concerns long voiced by aid groups working in Tigray.
She added that recent advances by Tigrayan rebels into neighbouring regions of Ethiopia also posed problems for aid convoys.
"The roads have to be secure. And so this is an appeal to all parties to allow unhindered humanitarian access, to put the needs of civilians in desperate need first."
Tigray has been wracked by violence since November, when Abiy sent troops to topple the ruling Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) in response to what he said were attacks by the group on federal army camps.
He declared victory within weeks after government forces took the Tigray capital Mekele, but TPLF leaders remained on the run and fighting continued.
The war took a stunning turn in late June when pro-TPLF forces re-entered Mekele, Abiy declared a unilateral ceasefire and the army mostly pulled out of Tigray.
Since then the rebels have launched new offensives into the Amhara and Afar regions which border Tigray, displacing hundreds of thousands of people.
On Tuesday night Power called on the TPLF to "immediately" withdraw from that territory.
She also reiterated Washington's demand that Amhara forces withdraw from western Tigray and that Eritrean troops backing up the Ethiopian military also leave the region.
The US has traditionally seen Ethiopia as a crucial partner in the volatile Horn of Africa region, but the Biden administration has been openly critical of the Tigray war.
Earlier this year US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said acts of ethnic cleansing were unfolding in western Tigray and announced visa restrictions on Ethiopian and Eritrean officials accused of fuelling the conflict.
The US ambassador to the UN on Wednesday condemned Ethiopia's decision to suspend two aid groups working in Tigray: the Dutch section of Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF, and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).
Ethiopia accused the groups of "disseminating misinformation" online.
"I know the work of @MSF and @NRC_Norway well, and they are internationally respected. Ethiopia must reconsider this decision," Linda Thomas-Greenfield said on Twitter.
Power said Wednesday evening she was concerned about "dehumanising rhetoric" including Abiy's use of words like "weeds" and "cancer" to refer to the TPLF.
Such language "only hardens tensions and... often accompanies ethnically motivated atrocities", said Power, who pushed back against criticism from top Ethiopian officials that Western leaders overlooked abuses committed by the TPLF.
"I want the Ethiopian people to know that we seek to engage with you and with your government on the basis of a set of values, not to play favourites or to pick sides during a conflict," she said.
Aid groups 'on fumes'
Abiy has said his June ceasefire was intended to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance, but aid workers say access is as bad as ever.
Ethiopia said Wednesday that 157 trucks of humanitarian assistance had reached Mekele, including items from the UN and international non-governmental organisations.
It was not immediately clear if the tally included a previous 50-truck convoy that arrived in July.
Inside Tigray aid distribution is hampered by cash and fuel shortages and a communications blackout.
"The organisations that we support are on fumes, literally," Power said Wednesday. "They have had to ration their fuel, they have had to think which programmes do we maintain, which do we cut."
UNICEF estimated last week that more than 100,000 children there could suffer from life-threatening acute malnutrition in the next 12 months -- 10 times the annual average.
The UN has said the conflict has pushed 400,000 people into famine-like conditions.