NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Ethiopian military airstrikes on Friday forced a United Nations humanitarian flight to abandon its landing in the capital of the country’s Tigray region, and a government spokesman said authorities were aware of the inbound flight. It appeared to be a sharp escalation in intimidation tactics authorities have used against aid workers amid the intensifying, year-long Tigray war.
Further U.N. flights have been suspended to Mekele, the base of humanitarian operations in Tigray, the World Food Program told The Associated Press. It said the flight with 11 passengers had been cleared by federal authorities but “received instructions to abort landing by the Mekele airport control tower.” It safely returned to Addis Ababa.
U.N. humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said: “The U.N. had not received any prior warning of the attacks on Mekelle and had received the necessary clearances for the flight.”
He expressed “grave concern” for civilians facing airstrikes in Mekele and insufficient humanitarian assistance into Tigray, and alarm at the worsening toll of fighting on civilians in the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions.
“We’ve had flights turned around because of weather," Gemma Connell, head of the U.N.’s regional humanitarian office for southern and eastern Africa, told reporters. “But this is the first time we’ve had a flight turn around, at least to my knowledge, in Ethiopia because of airstrikes on the ground.”
The friction between the government and humanitarian groups is occurring amid the world's worst hunger crisis in a decade, with close to a half-million people in Tigray said to be facing famine-like conditions. The government since June has imposed what the U.N. calls a “de facto humanitarian blockade” on the region of some 6 million people, and the AP has reported that people have begun to starve to death.
Ethiopian government spokesman Legesse Tulu told the AP authorities were aware the U.N. flight was in the area but said the U.N. and military flights had a “different time and direction.” It wasn’t immediately clear how close the planes came to each other.
Tigray forces spokesman Getachew Reda in a tweet said “our air defense units knew the U.N. plane was