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U.N. Says Ethiopia's Civil War Has The Country On The Brink Of Catastrophe

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The U.N. says that more than 350,000 people are now living in famine conditions. And if that country's civil war doesn't let up, hundreds of thousands are in danger of starving to death. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports. And a warning - this story contains disturbing content.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: During a roundtable with European allies, the American ambassador to the U.N., Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said what is happening in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia is, quote, "a moment of truth for the international community."

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LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We are witnessing a humanitarian nightmare. We cannot make the same mistake twice. We can not let Ethiopia starve.

PERALTA: Ethiopia descended into civil war last November, and the violence has been horrific. Civilians have been targeted because of their ethnicity. Homes, factories, farms, whole towns have been destroyed by troops. Women tell harrowing stories of being systematically gang raped by soldiers. The government has been accused of blocking aid from reaching a desperate population. And now the international agency charged with declaring famine says Ethiopia is on the brink of catastrophe. Mark Lowcock, the U.N.'s top humanitarian official.

MARK LOWCOCK: There is famine now in Tigray. The number of people in famine conditions is higher than anywhere anywhere in the world since a quarter of a million Somalis lost their lives in 2011.

PERALTA: The people of Tigray are already dying of hunger, he says. But if humanitarian access does not open up or if fighting gets worse, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians could starve. The government of Ethiopia rejects this assessment. In a press conference this week, they stated unequivocally that there was no hunger in Tigray. Critics of the Ethiopian government say that may very well be a strategy of war, that the government and its allied Eritrean forces are using hunger as a weapon. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.