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Ethiopia's war-scarred Tigray region regains some services

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Ethiopia sent civil servants in Tigray back to work on Monday and ordered gun owners to disarm as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government sought to restore normality in the northern region after weeks of war.

FILE PHOTO: An Ethiopian refugee who fled Tigray region holds a child inside a courtesy bus at the Fashaga camp, as they are transferred to Um-Rakoba camp on the Sudan-Ethiopia border, in Kassala state, Sudan December 13, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/File Photo

Some power and telephone links were also restored in regional capital Mekelle after a virtual communications blackout since federal troops’ Nov. 4 offensive. But there were reports of big fuel and food price hikes, plus water shortages.

Accounts of hunger and harassment also emerged from refugees, some of whom the Ethiopian government has sent back to Tigray. The region is still off-limits to journalists without a permit.

Abiy has declared victory over the former local ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The powerful TPLF dominated federal government for nearly three decades before anti-government protests propelled Abiy to office in 2018.

Thousands of people are believed killed and nearly a million fled their homes during air strikes and ground battles in Tigray that exposed bitter ethnic divisions around the vast nation.

The government seized Mekelle, home to 500,000 people, on Nov. 28, and released a video last week entitled “Normalcy in the eyes of the residents” featuring interviews with Tigrayans.

Tigray’s airspace was reopened on Monday.

The government said mobile voice services in Mekelle and six other towns had been restored, and that electricity was also back in the regional capital. However, of 27 calls made by Reuters to Mekelle on Monday, only 6 connected.

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There was mounting concern over 100,000 Eritrean refugees in Tigray. Three refugees in the Adi Harush camp reached by Reuters said there was no food and little water and they were being mistreated by armed men without uniforms. The men had raped two women, one of the refugees said.

Reuters was unable to verify their stories or reach the Ethiopian refugee agency, which is returning hundreds of people to the camps, for comment.

A 40-year-old driver reached by phone in Mekelle said power was back but there was little water and food was extremely expensive. “People are going outside because they are hungry,” he told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

He said the price of fuel had jumped nearly 14 times from 22 birr ($0.57) before the conflict to 300 birr on the black market. A kilo of berbere, a popular spice, soared from 70 to 800 birr. Reuters could not verify the prices.

Banks remained closed, and water is in short supply, another resident said.

The new government-appointed provisional administration for Tigray has told state employees - including rank-and-file workers from the previous administration - to return to work on Monday or be fired.

Gun owners must hand in weapons by Tuesday or risk arrest.

Administration head Mulu Nega said he was too busy to comment when Reuters tried to reach him on Monday.

TPLF leaders, believed to be hiding in the mountains, have previously said they were fighting back. Reuters has not been able to reach them for comment for more than a week.

It has been near impossible to verify accounts from all sides due to the communications difficulties.

($1 = 38.5334 birr)

Reporting by Addis Ababa newsroom; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Giles Elgood