NAROBI, Kenya – Ethiopia ordered the expulsion of seven senior UN officials on Thursday, two days after the UN aid chief warned northern Ethiopia was slipping into famine as the government halted aid delivery to the region. .
Among those ordered to be expelled, officials were coordinating relief efforts and sounding the alarm about a humanitarian crisis in the northern region of Tigre, which has been at war with the Ethiopian government for nearly a year.
UN officials said at least five million people in the Tigre needed immediate help, but since July 12 only 606 trucks have been allowed to enter the region, making it necessary to prevent a catastrophic famine. One tenth of the supply could be brought. Aid activists accused Ethiopian officials of using harassment and obstruction to disrupt the flow of aid into the area controlled by Tigreyan rebel forces.
Trucks carrying food, medicine and fuel are stranded in the neighboring Afar region, not allowed to go. On Thursday, Ethiopian officials forced 10 aid workers to disembark a United Nations flight in Tigre, saying they lacked the necessary paperwork, a senior aid official said. They did not want to be recognized to avoid retaliation.
In a statement to UN officials to spare for 72 hours, Ethiopia’s foreign ministry accused him of “interfering in the country’s internal affairs” and declared him a “persona non greta”.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “shocked” by the announcement and expressed his “absolute confidence” in UN staff who provide life-saving aid to Ethiopia.
The Ethiopian order, if implemented, would be one of the largest expulsions of senior UN humanitarian officials from any country, easing the eviction of three UN officials by the Syrian government in 2015 amid that country’s civil war. takes from.
It was also an indirect rebuke to President Biden, who two weeks ago threatened to impose sanctions on Ethiopian officials and other belligerents in the Tigre conflict unless he stopped fighting and opened humanitarian access to the region.
On Thursday, Mr. Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, condemned The Ethiopian ordered “in the strongest possible terms” and said the US “will not hesitate” to impose sanctions – but did not say when. “We agree with the leaders of the United Nations: this is a blot on our collective conscience and must be stopped,” said Ms. Saki.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, has reacted with anger and defiance to mounting international pressure. That topic was reinforced by his deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Demeke Mekonnen, at the United Nations General Assembly last week, when he accused unspecified enemies of inventing fantasies about Tigre’s situation in order to discredit Ethiopia’s government. Can go
Without naming those enemies, Mr Mekonnen strongly suggested that alien humanitarian groups were behind the negative “story lines” and “horrific imagery of bogus events”. He appeared to lay the groundwork for expulsion when he declared: “We are almost convinced that humanitarian aid is an excuse to advance political views.”
Still, UN officials expressed hope on Thursday that Ethiopian officials could withdraw the eviction order.
Stephanie Tremblay, the UN spokeswoman in New York who responded to Mr Guterres at the regular daily news briefing, said discussions were going on “at various levels” between Ethiopia and UN officials and stressed that their The employees “have not left Ethiopia yet.”
“We are really engaging with the government in the hope that our allies will be able to stay in the country and continue their work,” she said.
Still, last-minute appeals failed this summer after Ethiopia expelled aid workers from two key agencies – the Dutch branch of Doctors Without Borders and the Norwegian Refugee Council, accusing them of inciting “rebel groups”. .
Most of the officials named in Thursday’s removal order work for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, whose detailed report has been instrumental in drawing global attention to the crisis in the Tigre.
On a visit to Ethiopia this week, the agency’s head, Martin Griffiths, accused Ethiopia of carrying out a “real blockade” of the Tigre.
“It is man-made; This can be done away with by the act of the government,” he said.
When the Tigre War broke out in November, Mr. Abi promised a swift, bloodless campaign. Instead it has been linked to mass starvation, sexual violence and ethnic cleansing and, in recent months, has spread from Tigre to the neighboring regions of Afar and Amhara.
The human condition in those areas is also deteriorating. The United Nations said on Thursday it was feeding 52,000 internally displaced people in Afar and an additional 163,000 in Amhara.
Both sides believe a military victory is possible, and fighting is expected to intensify in the coming weeks, when the rainy season usually subsides. Foreign diplomats said they had limited hope that an African Union mediation mission led by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo would soon succeed.
Still, many will be watching closely the speech Mr Abiy is expected to deliver to Ethiopia’s parliament on Monday, marking the start of a new government, for any indication that he is open to talks. Is.
Ethiopian officials have sought to remove criticism of the aid blockade on Tigre, accusing the Tigre People’s Liberation Front, which controls the region, of seizing aid trucks for military purposes.
But senior UN officials and diplomats said there was little evidence to support those claims. The biggest problem, he said, is that ethnic Tigreyan truck drivers are reluctant to leave the area for fear of facing harassment or attacks.
Food, fuel, medicine and cash are running low inside Tigre, where the government has shut down internet and phone services, closed banks and blocked fuel supplies.
In interviews, several aid workers in Ethiopia said they feared the expulsion would affect their ability to maneuver and speak freely in the country. Aid officials declined to be identified in order to avoid reprisal from Ethiopian authorities.
Declan Walsh reported from Nairobi, Kenya and Rick Gladstone from New York. Simon Marks contributed reporting from Nairobi.