By Giulia Paravicini
NAIROBI (Reuters) - The nearly two-year conflict in Ethiopia has left almost half the population of Tigray region in "severe" need of food, as aid groups struggle to reach the population because of insufficient fuel supplies, the World Food Programme (WFP) said on Friday.
Even though the delivery of aid resumed after the federal government declared a unilateral ceasefire in March, malnutrition rates have "skyrocketed" and are expected to worsen, the United Nations agency said in an assessment.
Services such as banking and telecommunications were cut in Tigray, home to around 5.5 million people, days after the national army and allied forces pulled out a year ago. They are yet to be restored, hampering the ability of people to buy food, the WFP said.
"Hunger has deepened, rates of malnutrition have skyrocketed, and the situation is set to worsen as people enter peak hunger season until this year’s harvest in October," the report said.
Half of pregnant or lactating women in Tigray are malnourished, as well as a third of children under five, leading to stunting and maternal death, the report found.
Across Tigray and the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara, also affected by the war, an estimated 13 million people need food aid, a 44% increase from the previous WFP report released in January.
The United Nations said that since April 1 only 1,750,000 litres of fuel had entered Tigray, less than 20% of the monthly humanitarian needs in the region, if all supplies were in.
The impact of the fuel shortage can be seen in the increase in the number of people in Tigray needing food aid. In January, when the region was under what the U.N. described as a de facto blockade for six months, 83% of people needed food aid.
Large scale convoys started entering Tigray again in April but aid workers are struggling to distribute the food and the number of people needing it has risen to 89%, with those in "severe" need up from 40% in January to almost half.
Legesse Tulu, the government spokesperson, did not immediately respond to requests by Reuters for comment on the insufficient delivery of fuel.
Hopes for imminent peace talks between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the party that controls Tigray, are fading, as both parties accuse the other of not wanting to come to the table.
The government said earlier this month it wants talks "with no preconditions", while Tigray's government has called for the restoration of services to civilians first.
The fighting has displaced millions of people, pushed parts of Tigray into famine conditions and killed thousands of civilians.
The World Health Organization's director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who is from Tigray, suggested this week that racism was behind a lack of international attention being paid to the plight of civilians in the region.
(Reporting by Giulia Paravicini; Editing by Hereward Holland, Gareth Jones and Mark Potter)