The United Nations has said 16 of its Ethiopian staff have been detained in the country’s capital, Addis Ababa, with six others having been released.
Speaking to reporters in New York on Tuesday, UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said the world body was “actively working” with the Ethiopian government to secure the immediate release of those who were still in detention.
“There has been, as far as I know, no explanation given to us on why these staff members are detained,” he added, noting that UN security officials have visited the detained staff, all Ethiopian nationals working for various UN agencies.
There was no immediate comment by the Ethiopian government, which has been battling forces from the northern Tigray region for a year.
Tensions between Ethiopia’s government and the UN have been high throughout the war, which according to estimates by the world body has pushed hundreds of thousands into famine-like conditions.
In late September, the government had ordered the expulsion of seven senior UN officials from the country for “meddling” in its internal affairs.
US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Washington is aware of reports about the detentions and finds them “concerning”.
“We clearly condemned the previous expulsion of UN officials from Ethiopia, and if confirmed, we would similarly condemn arrests of UN staff members based on ethnicity,” Price told reporters on Tuesday.
“We understand from reports… that those arrested are Tigrayan. Ethiopian government security force harassment and detention on the basis of of ethnicity is completely unacceptable.”
Price added that the US “equally” condemns revenge attacks by fighters associated with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). “We call on all parties to cease such activities and respect human rights and the rule of law,” he said.
The detentions in Addis Ababa followed the declaration of a six-month nationwide state of emergency last week after Tigrayan and Oromo fighters claimed major advances on the ground, raising fears of a march on Addis Ababa.
“They are local staff arrested in a security operation in Addis Ababa. This security operation was started as soon as the state of emergency was declared by Ethiopia’s cabinet,” Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Adow, reporting from Addis Ababa, said. “Many people have been arrested across the capital; these UN workers were arrested in the course of that operation.”
Reports citing lawyers say arbitrary detentions of ethnic Tigrayans have spiked since the declaration of the state of emergency, with the new measures allowing the authorities to hold anyone suspected of supporting “terrorist groups” without a warrant. Ethiopian authorities say they are only targeting supporters of the TPLF group.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray in November 2020 to topple the TPLF, the former regional ruling party that dominated national politics before he took over in 2018.
Abiy, the winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, promised a swift victory, but by June the TPLF had retaken most of Tigray before expanding into the neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar.
The TPLF and its allies, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) have claimed several victories in recent weeks, taking towns about 400km (250 miles) from the capital, and they have not ruled out marching on Addis Ababa. The government says they are greatly exaggerating their gains but has ordered the capital to prepare to defend itself.
Amid growing international alarm, including warnings of a “widening civil war“, foreign envoys and the UN are now hoping that a fresh push led by the African Union (AU) will lead to a ceasefire.
UN emergency relief coordinator Martin Griffiths on Tuesday called for peace following a weekend visit to Tigray’s regional capital, Mekelle, where he met TPLF leaders.
“I implore all parties to heed the UN Secretary-General’s appeal to immediately end hostilities without preconditions, and reiterate the [UN’s] full support” for the AU’s efforts, he said.
Meanwhile, Jeffrey Feltman, United States special envoy for the Horn of Africa, held late-night talks on Monday with his AU counterpart, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, after meeting top Ethiopian officials last week, the State Department said.
“We believe there is a small window of opening to work with [Obasanjo],” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington. “We have engaged with the TPLF as well,” Price said.
Several countries have urged their citizens to leave Ethiopia while commercial flights are still available.
The US embassy has also ordered non-essential staff to leave and the UN has suspended non-essential missions to Addis Ababa.
Britain on Tuesday advised nationals to leave Ethiopia, citing a deteriorating security situation.
“The conflict has potential to escalate and spread quickly and with little warning,” the advisory said.
Among African nations, Zambia repatriated 31 workers from its embassy in Addis Ababa, following an order by President Hakainde Hichilema to evacuate citizens.