Thousands of lives in Dessie and Kombolcha towns in Ethiopia's northern Amhara region risk starvation after the World Food Program suspended food distribution in the area due to looting of its aid supplies.
According to the United Nations, large quantities of humanitarian food stocks have been looted, including essential therapeutic nutrition items for malnourished children.
"The small-scale theft of food stocks has escalated into mass looting of warehouses across Kombolcha over recent days, reportedly by elements of the Tigrayan forces and some members of the local population," Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman of the United Nations, said on Wednesday.
Dujarric said WFP teams on the ground could not prevent looting due to intimidation, including staff being held at gunpoint.
"Such harassment against humanitarian staff by armed forces is unacceptable and undermines the ability of the UN and our partners to deliver humanitarian assistance when it is most needed, particularly as aid workers face growing access challenges across several areas in Ethiopia," he said.
Dujarric warned such incidents will worsen the high levels of malnutrition and prolonged food insecurity in the entire war-torn northern region, where 9.4 million people are in need of critical food aid.
On Tuesday, Billene Seyoum, the spokeswoman in the office of the prime minister, said the Tigray People's Liberation Front is holding around 900 humanitarian trucks and using them to move away their combatants and looted items.
Seyoum said national forces had reclaimed Dessie and Kombolcha, among other towns in both Amhara and Afar, and had registered mass destruction of private and public properties as well as killings of civilians by the Tigray forces.
She said the rebel groups had destroyed hospital infrastructure and looted medicines, as well as destroyed and looted commercial banks and hotels. Lalibela Airport was also not spared.
"There are reports of mass killings in Gashena and the North Shoa town of Antsokia that have been undertaken by the Tigray People's Liberation Front. Similarly, there are vast reports of rape emerging across these towns that were occupied by the Tigray People's Liberation Front," Seyoum said.
She said further investigations are needed to expose the grave human rights violations committed by the rebel group.
Seyoum said more than 1.4 million people have been displaced by conflict in Amhara, while in Afar 376,000 have been displaced. She added immediate emergency response is needed for 1.3 million people in Afar.
The food distribution suspension by the WFP came two days after the UN agency announced it was facing a major funding shortfall over the next six months threatening its operations in Ethiopia.
The WFP said it's facing a funding gap of $579 million to deliver food aid and livelihood support to 12 million people in Ethiopia in the next six months.
This includes $316 million needed to deliver emergency food and nutrition assistance to 3.7 million people in northern Ethiopia.
In addition to the conflicts, Ethiopia's hunger crisis has been exacerbated by extended combined effects of flooding, drought, desert locust invasions, market disruptions and high food prices as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving 13.6 million people food insecure, according to WFP.
The Ethiopia Food Security Outlook projects high levels of acute food insecurity in Ethiopia through at least mid-2022.