The United Nations said Tuesday that 22 of its Ethiopian national staff were detained by the federal government in Addis Ababa, following raids reportedly targeting ethnic Tigrayans. Six of the U.N. staffers have been released.
“We are of course actively working with the government of Ethiopia to secure their immediate release,” U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters of the 16 who remain in detention. “It is imperative that they are released.”
He said no explanation was given for the detention of the staffers, who work for various U.N. agencies. He said “some of them have been detained over the last few days.” U.N. security officers have visited those who remain in custody.
On September 30, Ethiopia expelled seven U.N. humanitarian officials, saying they were meddling in the country’s affairs.
The announcement of the detentions comes 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 Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and made a one-day trip to Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region.
Last Thursday marked the first anniversary of Prime Minister 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.
A week ago, the Ethiopian government declared a six-month state of emergency and called on residents to defend their neighborhoods if rebels arrive in the capital.
That declaration 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 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 came from Reuters and Agence France-Presse.