NAIROBI, Kenya — A continuing siege of Tigray by Ethiopian government forces is frustrating church efforts to deliver humanitarian aid to millions of people in need in the troubled northern region of the East Africa nation.

Catholic leaders said the church’s contribution to life-saving efforts remains significant, however, benefitting tens of thousands of people. Despite the efforts, they said, people remain isolated and are struggling in the midst of blockade that has lasted for more than 600 days.

“As a result, millions of people are exposed to severe malnutrition, starvation and famine-like situation,” Father Abraha Hagos, director of the Adigrat Catholic Secretariat, which serves the region, reported in his latest update. “Millions are still living in (internally displaced people) centers in the different cities, towns, and rural areas … without food, shelter, water, medicine and other basic needs.”

His report is dated June 29, but its distribution has been restricted by limited internet and telecommunication networks. The priest also said banking, transportation and business links remain blocked 20 months after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali ordered a military strike against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, rulers of the semi-autonomous region, over allegations that they had attacked a national army base.

Relief agencies estimate that more than 5 million people are in urgent need of food and medical supplies. Allegations of ethnic cleansing by Ethiopian forces have surfaced.

Since March, small quantities of food, nonfood items, and medicine have entered the region via land transport and airlifts following a humanitarian truce, Hagos said. Still, the lack of fuel and cash has meant that aid cannot reach people most in need.

“(We) would like to call upon all partners and humanitarian organizations to (speak) for the people for their unlimited humanitarian access,” Hagos said.

The Ethiopian government denies that it is blocking aid shipments and claims that rebel forces are making such claims in an advance of another round of fighting, Voice of America reported.

Another priest, who asked not to be identified because of concerns for his safety, told Catholic News Service July 15 that “things are still very bleak for the people of Tigray.”

“What is reaching the area in terms of food aid is too little, and yet cannot be transported due to lack of fuel following the siege. We are seeing systematic starvation — a kind of weaponized starvation,” the priest said.

Meanwhile, some observers say the conflict is reaching a turning point with no major confrontation between the national army and the Tigray fighters since June. The government and the leaders of TPLF have indicated their intention to begin peace negotiations.

Ali has been quoted in news reports saying that the government “wants peace with everyone.” He has since established a government negotiating team of seven members.

Debretsion Gebremichael, president of the Tigray region and chairman of the TPLF, also expressed his side’s preparedness for negotiations, but has stressed that talks must address the fundamental principles of human rights, democracy and accountability.