NAIROBI, Kenya — Up to 200,000 refugees could pour into Sudan while fleeing the deadly conflict in Ethiopia's northern Tigray region, officials said Wednesday, while the first details are emerging of largely cut-off civilians under growing strain. Nearly 10,000 people have crossed the border, including some wounded in the fighting, and the flow is growing quickly.
"There are lots of children and women," Al-Sir Khalid, the head of the refugee agency in Sudan's Kassala province, told The Associated Press. "They are arriving very tired and exhausted. They are hungry and thirsty since they have walked long distances on rugged terrain."
Authorities are overwhelmed and the situation is deteriorating, he said.
Inside the Tigray region, long lines have appeared outside bread shops, and supply-laden trucks are stranded at its borders, the United Nations humanitarian chief in Ethiopia told the AP.
"We want to have humanitarian access as soon as possible," Sajjad Mohammad Sajid said. "Fuel and food are needed urgently." Up to 2 million people in Tigray have a "very, very difficult time."
Fuel is already being rationed, and the U.N. refugee agency said it and partners "will struggle to continue running their operations in the next two weeks."
Communications remain almost completely severed with the Tigray region a week after Ethiopia's Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced a military offensive in response to an alleged attack by regional forces. He insists there will be no negotiations with a regional government he considers illegal until its ruling "clique" is arrested and its well-stocked arsenal is destroyed.
Ethnic Tigrayans are reportedly being targeted across Ethiopia, the Tigray Communication Affairs Bureau said in a Facebook post. Abiy has warned against ethnic profiling, but observers are alarmed by the development in a country already plagued by deadly ethnic violence.
Rallies in support of the federal government's measures are planned Thursday in the capital, Addis Ababa, and other cities in the Oromia and Amhara regions, along with a blood drive for the Ethiopian army.
The European Union, the African Union and others have urged Abiy for an immediate de-escalation as the conflict threatens to destabilize the strategic but vulnerable Horn of Africa region. The top U.S. diplomat for Africa, Tibor Nagy, spoke with Ethiopia's foreign minister and stressed that peace in Ethiopia is "indispensable" for the region, the state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate reported.
The standoff leaves more than 1,000 people of different nationalities stranded in the Tigray region, while nearly 900 aid workers from the U.N. and other groups struggle to contact the outside world with pleas for help. "Nine U.N. agencies, almost 20 NGOs, all depending on two offices" with the means to communicate, Sajid said.
With airports in Tigray closed, roads blocked, internet service cut off and even banks no longer operating, it "makes our life very difficult in terms of ensuring almost 2 million people receive humanitarian assistance," he said.
There was no sign of a lull in the fighting that has included multiple airstrikes by federal forces and hundreds of people reported dead on each side. It was not clear how many of the dead are civilians.
"It looks like, unfortunately, this may not be something which can be resolved by any party in a week or two," Sajid said. "It looks like it's going to be a protracted conflict, which is a huge concern from the point of view of protection of civilians."
"Even the physical security of the refugees is at stake, if the conflict expands," U.N. refugee agency spokesman Kisut Gebreegziabher said. The four camps in Tigray hosting 96,000 refugees are not in immediate danger as the fighting is largely in the west near the border with Sudan and Eritrea, he said.
The refugees at least have more food than usual because supplies for two months, instead of one, were handed out this month as a COVID-19 pandemic measure to limit people congregating, he said. But no one knows how long the conflict could drag on.
"Every global agency, the U.N., is asking for a cease-fire but we haven't seen any agreement, any willingness to dialogue," Kisut said.
Ethiopia's federal government and Tigray's regional government, the Tigray People's Liberation Front, blame each other for starting the conflict. Each regards the other as illegal. The TPLF dominated Ethiopia's ruling coalition for years before Abiy came to office in 2018 but has since broken away while accusing the prime minister's administration of targeting and marginalizing its officials.
Airstrikes will continue, Ethiopia's air force chief, Maj. Gen. Yilma Merdasa, told reporters Wednesday, asserting that forces had destroyed weapons depots, gas stations and other targets with "supreme control of the skies."
Ethiopia's army chief, Gen. Birhanu Jula, said the federal forces based in Tigray had been encircled for five days and "denied food and water" before breaking out and launching a counteroffensive, the Ethiopian News Agency reported.
It remained difficult to verify either side's claims. And now some Ethiopian journalists are being arrested, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said, calling it a "worrying development."
Experts have compared the fighting to an inter-state conflict, with each side heavily armed. The Tigray region has an estimated quarter-million fighters, along with four of the Ethiopian military's six mechanized divisions. That's a legacy of Ethiopia's long border war with Eritrea, which made peace after Abiy came to power but remains at bitter odds with the TPLF.
The Tigray president has accused Eritrea of attacking at the request of Ethiopia, saying "the war has now progressed to a different stage." Ethiopia's defense minister, Kenea Yadeta, on Wednesday called that "a complete lie."
Eritrean officials have not responded to requests for comment, but Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel tweeted that the foreign minister and presidential adviser met in Khartoum with Sudan's Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the head of the sovereign council, and Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and delivered a message from Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki.
There were no details of the message, but the officials discussed "current developments" in Ethiopia, the minister said.