Written by Staff Writer, CNN
Ethiopia announced Monday it has suspended food distributions to more than 240,000 people in two southern towns following an attack by armed men in which food aid was reportedly stolen.
A spokesman for Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Meles Alem, said the two towns — Xalu, in the south-eastern Amhara region, and Zerihun, in the northeastern Oromia region — remain under “great insecurity.”
He added that the government had also ordered the Ethiopian Air Force to evacuate all non-essential foreign diplomatic and military personnel from the towns.
Amin Mekonnen, who lives in Zerihun, told CNN that around 1,500 people had been displaced by the attack, adding that the situation remained “very unstable.”
Aid workers say the attack is indicative of tensions in Ethiopia, where protesters have for years alleged that the country’s economic development is being held back by the government’s heavy-handed treatment of critics.
Reports from local authorities say no civilians were hurt in the incident. However, the Ethiopian state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate (FBC) radio quoted aid workers saying some people were shot dead by unidentified security forces after attempts to steal aid supplies.
“We are in a critical situation and are dealing with food scarcity. There is a high malnutrition rate in the affected areas,” FBC reported, quoting an official of the government-run Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (ERRC).
Mekonnen, the resident of Zerihun, said there was only limited food available for those displaced by the attack, adding that some people had fled to the town’s nearby market.
“There is very little food at the markets,” he said. “Some people are living in the main market.”
It is not the first time a conflict has erupted around food aid in Ethiopia. In 2010, a row over distribution of aid led to Ethiopia’s prime minister stepping down.
The world’s second-poorest country has been rocked by unrest in recent years, sparking months of protests and subsequent government crackdowns that have left hundreds dead.
The Horn of Africa country has since seen an easing of tensions, although not all protesters have been willing to accept the government’s efforts to improve conditions.