An Ethiopian woman scoops up portions of wheat to be...

An Ethiopian woman scoops up portions of wheat to be allocated to each waiting family after it was distributed by the Relief Society of Tigray in the town of Agula, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia on May 8, 2021. A study by local health authorities and Mekele University in the regional capital found that hunger is now the main cause of death in Tigray, accounting for more than 68% of deaths investigated by the researchers. Credit: AP/Ben Curtis

NAIROBI, Kenya — Researchers say they have verified 1,329 deaths from hunger in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region since a cease-fire ended a two-year conflict there in November.

A study by local health authorities and Mekele University in the regional capital found that hunger is now the main cause of death in Tigray, accounting for more than 68% of deaths investigated by the researchers.

The study is based on a household census conducted by health workers from August 15-29 in nine subdistricts of Tigray and 53 camps for internally displaced people.

Tigray in total has 88 subdistricts and 643 displacement camps, so the number of hunger deaths across the region is almost certainly far higher.

One factor is the suspension of food aid by the United States and United Nations after the discovery in March of a huge scheme to steal humanitarian grain in Tigray. The pause was extended to the rest of Ethiopia in June after the theft was found to be nationwide.

Ethiopia’s government wants the suspension ended. The U.S. government and the U.N. want the government to give up its control of the food aid delivery system.

The number of deaths from all causes recorded by the researchers in the Tigray areas studied rose sharply after the aid suspension, almost doubling from 159 in March to 305 in July.

In this Dec. 5, 2020 file photo, a Tigray woman...

In this Dec. 5, 2020 file photo, a Tigray woman who fled the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region, holds her malnourished and severely dehydrated baby as nurses give him IV fluids, at the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) clinic, at Umm Rakouba refugee camp in Qadarif, eastern Sudan. A study by local health authorities and Mekele University in the regional capital found that hunger is now the main cause of death in Tigray, accounting for more than 68% of deaths investigated by the researchers. Credit: AP/Nariman El-Mofty

Around 5.4 million of Tigray’s 6 million population relied on humanitarian aid. Over 20 million people in Ethiopia as a whole need food aid.

The study’s findings are described in a document seen by The Associated Press and prepared by the Tigray Emergency Coordination Center, a group of U.N. agencies, aid groups and regional government offices.

Hunger plagued Tigray throughout the conflict between Ethiopian and allied forces and Tigray fighters. For much of it, the federal government cut the region’s services and restricted aid access, prompting U.N. experts to accuse it of using hunger as a weapon.

The government rejected claims of weaponizing aid, blaming the Tigray fighters for the lack of access.

November’s cease-fire kindled hopes that aid would reach the region, but they were dashed by the discovery of the massive theft, with some U.S.-marked bags of grain being sold in local markets.

Tigray authorities found that 7,000 metric tons of grain had been stolen. Earlier this month, the region’s leader announced that 480 officials had been arrested in connection with the corruption.

Other parts of Ethiopia are yet to disclose the results of their own probes. The U.S. and the U.N. World Food Program are also investigating.

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