U.N. hopeful it can restart aid into Ethiopia's Tigray region "in days" - OCHA head

By Tommy Wilkes and Ayenat Mersie

NAIROBI (Reuters) -The United Nations is hopeful it can resume aid deliveries into Ethiopia's war-torn Tigray region "in days" following a truce agreed between combatants, but some remote areas remain off-limits, the head of its humanitarian office (OCHA) for Ethiopia said on Friday.

Ethiopia and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the party that controls most of the region, agreed on Wednesday a "permanent cessation of hostilities". That followed two years of war that has killed thousands, displaced millions and left half of Tigray's 5.5 million people in severe need of food.

The United Nations says it has effectively been blocked from sending in aid since violence erupted anew in August, ending a previous ceasefire. The federal government has repeatedly denied blocking aid.

U.N. agencies have been talking to federal and Tigrayan authorities since late October about resuming aid convoys into Tigray and those conversations have intensified since the truce, said Michel Saad, the head of the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) for Ethiopia.

"So far we are getting feedback and good assurances but we are still waiting for the final go-ahead," Saad told Reuters during a telephone interview.

"We are making progress, some small steps but in the right direction," he said. "I’m hopeful it's going to be days." U.N. agencies had been gathering supplies and Saad said they needed 24-48 hours to get aid moving once they got the green light.

Ethiopian government spokesperson Legesse Tulu and Getachew Reda, a spokesman for the Tigray authorities, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In an Oct. 24 statement, the federal government communication service said it was coordinating with humanitarian agencies "to continue providing humanitarian aid" in urban areas where it had recently taken control.

The U.N. on Wednesday restarted distributing stockpiled food in the Tigrayan capital Mekelle, Saad said, and it has proposed to authorities to open an air corridor to fly aid directly into Mekelle and the city of Shire.

It has also begun checking the safety of supply routes that U.N. agencies have been unable to use for more than a year, with staff assessing routes for unexploded ordinance, communication channels and whether bridges can withstand trucks, he added.

OCHA is assessing routes into Tigray from several areas of northern Amhara, including the Wag Hemra and North Gondar Debub Wollo zones. It is also considering routes through Wolqait, an area contested by Tigray and Amhara, and routes via the Afar region.

"The feedback is that we can start operations but when it comes to moving further north" in Tigray the security situation is unclear, Saad said.

The U.N. has been working within Tigray since August with existing stockpiled supplies as much as has been possible and it has continued to work in neighbouring areas, Saad said, but it has not been able to send new aid from one region into another.

Other aid organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross this week welcomed the ceasefire agreement, calling its implementation vital to scale up relief.

With much of Tigray inaccessible since August, humanitarian agencies say they do not know the full scale of needs.

Supplies are lacking to treat more than 25,500 severely malnourished children in Tigray, OCHA said on Tuesday in an update.

"The needs are huge," Saad said.

(Reporting by Tommy Reggiori Wilkes and Ayenat MersieEditing by James Macharia Chege, Frank Jack Daniel and Chizu Nomiyama)