A United Nations humanitarian flight to the Ethiopian region of Tigray, epicenter of a year-old war that threatens to cause deepening famine, was ordered to abort a landing on Friday as government airstrikes hit the area for a fourth day.
The flight by the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service, bound for the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle, returned to the national capital, Addis Ababa, and all such flights were suspended, said Steve Taravella, a spokesman for the World Food Program, the U.N. anti-hunger agency that manages the air service.
It was the first time a U.N. humanitarian flight had been forced to abandon a mission into the Tigrayan region because of airstrikes, said Gemma Connell, the top U.N. aid official for southern and eastern Africa.
“We’re obviously concerned about what has taken place today,” Ms. Connell said in a conference call with reporters. She said 11 humanitarian workers were aboard but did not elaborate on their work or the cargo they had carried.
The flight was aborted as Ethiopian forces struck what the government described as a rebel military training center in a fourth day of aerial assaults, which appeared to be part of a major escalation in the conflict. Some nongovernment news accounts said a university campus in the Tigrayan capital had been hit. There was no independent confirmation of the target or the extent of casualties or damage.
For the United Nations, the aborted flight punctuated the difficulties the organization faces in trying to provide food and other assistance to victims of a polarized conflict that is intensifying in Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous country, and that risks causing the worst famine in a decade.
U.N. officials have complained for months about their inability to send truck convoys of food and fuel into the conflict zone because of Ethiopian government security checkpoints and bureaucratic obstacles. Ms. Connell said that only 15 percent of the aid needed has reached its destination since July.
Fighting has intensified over the past two weeks since the Ethiopian government launched a major offensive intended to break the deadlock in the war. The Ethiopian military and local forces attacked Tigrayan rebels in the Amhara region, just south of Tigray.
The Tigrayans began a counteroffensive and the fighting has spread into the neighboring Afar region, according to officials on both sides. The Tigrayans claim to have killed 34,000 government troops and captured 1,400 more, but access to these areas has been restricted, making it difficult for outside news media to ascertain what is happening.
The United Nations says that the number of people in need of humanitarian help has risen to seven million, including five million in Tigray, and that 400,000 are suffering famine-like conditions.
The conflict has blighted the international reputation of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia, who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for having ended the protracted conflict with neighboring Eritrea.
The Tigray conflict, which Mr. Abiy had confidently proclaimed would be over within a few weeks when it began last November, now risks slipping beyond his grasp as fighting spreads elsewhere, threatening to unravel the complex ethnic patchwork that holds Ethiopia together.
Tensions also have escalated between Mr. Abiy and the United States. Washington had been a major source of aid and friendship to Ethiopia, but it has since exhorted Mr. Abiy to find a way to resolve the conflict and allow outside assistance to reach victims.
Last month, President Biden signed an executive order threatening sweeping new sanctions aimed at stopping the war. Reacting indignantly, Mr. Abiy issued a lengthy statement that accused Western nations of bias, described the criticisms of him as neocolonialist and showed no sign that he might bend to the American demands.
Relations between Mr. Abiy’s government and the United Nations have also worsened since Sept. 30, when the Ethiopian authorities declared seven U.N. humanitarian officials unwelcome in the country, accusing them of interference and sympathy with the rebels.
The United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, called the expulsions unacceptable and demanded evidence from the Ethiopian government to justify them. Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesman for Mr. Guterres, said Friday that he had yet to receive any such evidence.