The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) said Friday that the number of people requiring food aid in war-torn northern Ethiopia had surged to more than nine million.
International alarm is mounting about the escalating conflict in Africa's second most populous country, with fighters from the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) rebel group advancing towards the capital as foreign governments urge their citizens to leave.
The year-long war has left hundreds of thousands on the brink of famine as aid workers struggle to deliver urgently-needed supplies to desperate populations in the regions of Tigray, Amhara and Afar.
On Friday, the WFP said the situation had sharply deteriorated in recent months, with an estimated 9.4 million people facing hunger "as a direct result of ongoing conflict", compared with around seven million in September.
"Amhara region -- the frontlines of the conflict in Ethiopia -- has seen the largest jump in numbers with 3.7 million people now in urgent need of humanitarian aid," WFP said.
"Of the people across northern Ethiopia in need of assistance, more than 80 percent (7.8 million) of them are behind battle lines."
Health facilities damaged
This week, aid workers were able to distribute food in the Amhara towns of Dessie and Kombolcha for the first time since they were captured by the TPLF nearly a month ago, the WFP said, adding that it was only granted access to its warehouses last week.
The risk of malnutrition has also increased across the three regions, with screening data showing rates between 16 and 28 percent for children, it said.
"Even more alarmingly, up to 50 percent of pregnant and breastfeeding women screened in Amhara and Tigray were also found to be malnourished."
Fighting has also damaged more than 500 health facilities in Amhara, the UN's humanitarian agency OCHA said late Thursday.
As the rebels report major territorial gains, claiming this week to have seized a town just 220 kilometres (135 miles) from Addis Ababa, the government has stepped up its use of air power against the TPLF.
On Friday the TPLF and a hospital official reported two air strikes in Tigray's capital Mekele.
Dr Hayelom Kebede, research director at Mekele's Ayder Referral Hospital, told AFP the bombings occurred at 9 am and 12:30 pm, with the first one destroying two homes.
"Still waiting for the casualty report," he said.
Sources told AFP the first strike struck close to the house of a rebel commander and near a hill with an anti-aircraft machine gun.
But Abiy's spokeswoman Billene Seyoum said she had "no information" about any drone strikes in Mekele, which was recaptured by the rebels in June before they expanded into Amhara and Afar.
The government declared a nationwide state of emergency earlier this month, announcing new rules Thursday against sharing information on battlefield outcomes, a move that could bring sanctions against journalists.
The latest decree said it was "forbidden to distribute in any communication systems any military movements, battlefield outcomes" that were not officially published by the government.
"Security forces will take necessary measures on those who have been found to violate" the order, it said in a possible warning to news outlets and social media accounts that have reported on rebel claims of territorial gains.
The government also barred residents from "using various types of media platforms to support directly or indirectly the terrorist group" -- a reference to the TPLF -- and warned of unspecified consequences for anyone who ignored the decree.
The state of emergency imposed on November 2 allows the authorities to conscript citizens who own weapons or suspend any media outlets believed to be "giving moral support directly or indirectly" to the TPLF.
The war erupted in early November 2020 when Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, sent troops into Tigray to topple its ruling party, the TPLF.
He said the move was in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps and promised a swift victory but fighting has dragged on for over a year.
On Wednesday state media reported that Abiy, a former lieutenant-colonel in the military, had arrived at the front line to lead a counter-offensive, handing over regular duties to his deputy.