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UN Says 9 Staff, 70 Contractors Detained in Ethiopia


FILE - Ethiopian military parade with national flags attached to their rifles at a rally organized by local authorities to show support for the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), at Meskel square in downtown Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Nov. 7, 2021.

The United Nations said Wednesday that at least nine of their staff remain detained by Ethiopia's federal government in Addis Ababa, and 70 truckers who were to drive humanitarian aid into the northern Tigray region have also been taken into custody.

"We continue to work and engage with the government to secure their release," U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters.

On Tuesday, the United Nations said 22 of its Ethiopian staff members had been detained in Addis Ababa but that six had been released. Some dependents were among those in custody. Dujarric said Wednesday that no more dependents are among those held.

FILE - United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric fields questions at U.N. headquarters, June 20, 2017.
FILE - United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric fields questions at U.N. headquarters, June 20, 2017.

The spokesman said there has still been no explanation for the detentions.

"We have not received any official communications," Dujarric said in response to questions. "We have spoken to the government, we have sent note verbales, we are looking for explanations."

On September 30, Ethiopia expelled seven U.N. humanitarian officials, saying they were meddling in the country's affairs.

The truck drivers work for both the United Nations and a number of international NGOs, the spokesman said. They were detained on a road in Samara, in the northern region of Afar. Their cargo was headed for Tigray, where 5.2 million people are in dire need of aid. No humanitarian assistance has gotten into the region for nearly four weeks.

FILE - U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Lahore, Pakistan, Feb. 18, 2020.
FILE - U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Lahore, Pakistan, Feb. 18, 2020.

Dujarric said U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has not spoken with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in a week. The spokesman said "as soon as the contact has been made, we will let you know."

Reports from the region say raids targeting ethnic Tigrayans have increased in the past week, since the government declared a six-month state of emergency.

The announcement of the initial detentions came just a day after U.N. humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths concluded a four-day visit to the country to try to improve aid access to northern Ethiopia.

He met with Abiy and made a one-day trip to Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region.

Tensions rising

Last Thursday marked the first anniversary of Abiy's deployment of troops to Tigray in response to forces of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) seizing military bases.

The ensuing conflict has killed thousands of people, displaced several million from their homes, and left millions in need of aid and at least 400,000 residents of Tigray facing famine, according to the United Nations.

The conflict threatens to spill into the capital as the TPLF and allied groups have threatened to march there.

The declaration of a state of emergency allows the government to arrest without warrants anyone it claims is collaborating with rebels, Reuters reported. There have been reports of Tigrayans being arrested in Addis Ababa.

Asked Tuesday if the detained staffers are Tigrayan, U.N. spokesman Dujarric said: "It's a valid question, but for us, these are United Nations staff members. They are Ethiopians. They are U.N. staff members and we'd like to see them released, regardless of whatever ethnicity is listed on their identity cards."

A joint investigation by the United Nations and the government-created Ethiopian Human Rights Commission found that all sides in the Tigray conflict have committed human rights violations, including torture of civilians, gang rapes and arrests based on ethnicity. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said some of those abuses may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Last week, the U.S. urged all Americans to depart Ethiopia and cautioned against travel there. It renewed its call for Americans to leave on Tuesday, saying the security situation "remains very fluid."

Some information in this report comes from Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

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