The International Committee of the Red Cross said it is defying an Ethiopian government order to leave that country's war-torn northern Tigre and Eritrea provinces, where there is drought and famine.

The Red Cross asked authorities to let relief agencies continue their work in the provinces."Intensified fighting has made the needs of the civilian population living in conflict zones particularly urgent," the committee said in a statement Thursday night. "There is now an even greater need to continue and even increase the protection and assistance activities."

The agency has stopped virtually all relief work in the two provinces. But it's roughly 25 delegates are staying in the area in hopes the Marxist government will revise its stand, committee official Catherine Peduzzi said.

The agency said it is committed to uphold its mandate as a neutral intermediary in conflict areas, citing a "humanitarian responsibility for the fate of some 5 million people" in the two provinces.

Children are showing very high levels of malnutrition, the statement said.

The Ethiopian government told international relief agencies Wednesday to recall all foreign workers from Tigre and Eritrea for security reasons. President Mengistu Haile Mariam said last week that government troops are mobilizing to crush a long-standing rebellion in the region.

The Red Cross said it immediately asked the government to reconsider the expulsion order.