NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — The United States humanitarian agency told The Associated Press it is horrified by conditions in Ethiopia, where local officials have reported hundreds of hunger deaths in recent weeks after the U.S. and the United Nations paused food aid for one-sixth of the country’s population over massive theft of the aid.
In an unusually strong statement emailed to the AP, the U.S. Agency for International Development called the aid suspension “wrenching” and a measure of last resort because of the “extreme scale and coordination of food aid diversion identified across the country.”
U.S. officials have said in private that this could be the biggest-ever theft of aid in any country.
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The U.S. and U.N. have not said who was involved in the theft, which was first discovered in March in the northern Tigray region when tons of food meant for needy people were instead found for sale in sacks branded with the U.S. flag.
Aid workers said Ethiopian government officials are deeply involved. The government, which largely controls the aid delivery process, dismisses as harmful propaganda the suggestion that it bears primary responsibility for the disappearance of aid. It has agreed to a joint investigation with the U.S. while the U.N.’s World Food Program carries out a separate probe.
“The theft of food from this highly vulnerable population is unconscionable,” the USAID email said after the AP reported this week that local officials and university researchers had recorded over 700 starvation-related deaths in Tigray since the food pause started three months ago. The officials and researchers linked the deaths to the suspension.
The U.S. and U.N. first halted food aid to Tigray in March, and in early June they extended the ban to the rest of Ethiopia, where over 20 million people rely on such assistance.
Tigray was the epicenter of a two-year war that ended in November and killed an estimated hundreds of thousands of people. Aid access to Tigray was blocked or restricted for much of the conflict, and humanitarian supplies were only just returning to the region when the U.S. and U.N. halted food assistance.
The U.S. and U.N. are demanding the removal of Ethiopian government officials from the aid distribution process and seek the introduction of biometric checks before resuming food deliveries, which they hope to do as early as July.
“We are horrified by the ongoing suffering experienced by the people of Ethiopia and our focus is on resuming food assistance as quickly as possible once we can be confident it is going to the people in need,” the USAID email said.
The U.S. and U.N. are still running nutrition and other programs in Ethiopia, but those are only reaching a fraction of people who need them because of funding gaps.