UN reports 'unprecedented' malnutrition in Tigray

Addis Ababa (AFP) –

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The UN warned of "unprecedented" malnutrition among pregnant and lactating women in Ethiopia's war-hit Tigray region, in a report published hours after the government sparked outrage by expelling senior UN officials.

The latest situation report from the UN's humanitarian coordination office, posted online late Thursday, also described "alarming" malnutrition among children as fears of mass starvation grow nearly 11 months after northern Ethiopia erupted in conflict.

"Of the more than 15,000 pregnant and lactating women screened during the reporting period, more than 12,000 women, or about 79 per cent, were diagnosed with acute malnutrition," the report said.

The level of moderate malnutrition among children under five "is also exceeding global emergency threshold of 15 per cent, at about 18 per cent, while cases of children with severe malnutrition is 2.4 per cent, above the alarming 2 per cent level," it said.

On Thursday Ethiopia announced it would expel seven senior UN officials for "meddling" in its affairs, including the local heads of the UN children's agency UNICEF and its humanitarian coordination office.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was "shocked" by the decision, and diplomats said an emergency UN Security Council meeting would be held behind closed doors Friday to discuss the matter.

The UN officials were given 72 hours to leave the country.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, sent troops into Tigray last November to topple the regional ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), a move he said was in response to TPLF attacks on army camps.

Fighting ground on for months before Tigrayan rebels retook the regional capital Mekele in June and government forces largely withdrew from the region.

Since then, the TPLF has launched offensives into neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions.

Tigray itself is receiving only about 10 percent of the aid it needs, and in July the UN warned that 400,000 people across the region had "crossed the threshold into famine".

Federal officials blame the TPLF for obstructing deliveries, but a US State Department spokesman told AFP last week that access to essential supplies and services was "being denied by the Ethiopian government" and that there were "indications of a siege".