Ethiopia’s forces detain U.N. staffers in Tigray

A Tigray woman who fled the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region holds her child inside of her temporary shelter at Umm Rakouba refugee camp in Qadarif, eastern Sudan

Ethiopia’s security forces shot at and arrested United Nations staffers as they tried to move to the part of the embattled Tigray region, a senior official stated Tuesday, and he accused the U.N. staffers of attempting to reach areas where “they were not supposed to go.”

The shooting transpired amid rising frustration among humanitarians as urgently needed aid is still not freely reaching the Tigray region more than a week after Ethiopia’s government and the U.N. signed a deal for safe passage.

The senior director, Redwan Hussein, told journalists that the U.N. employees “broke” two checkpoints and were trying to go through a third when they were fired upon. He said the staffers have since been discharged.

“They were told in some areas they were not supposed to move. But they indulged themselves in a kind of adventurous expedition,” he said.

The U.N. did not immediately comment.

Ethiopia’s government is making it clear it plans to manage the process of allowing in generous aid, but the U.N. has openly sought unfettered and neutral access. Crucially, the deal provides assistance only in areas under Ethiopian government control.

Ethiopia’s government late last month declared victory in the Tigray region’s conflict against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The government asserts that the fighting has stopped, but the TPLF has said the battle continues.

Food, medicines, and other aid for some 6 million people — some 1 million now displaced — is in the balance.

“Regaining access to refugees and others in need is urgent and critical for UNHCR and humanitarian organizations,” the head of the U.N. refugee agency, Filippo Grandi, tweeted Tuesday, amid growing fears about nearly 100,000 refugees from Eritrea trapped in the conflict.

In a separate statement, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s head, Jan Egeland, said his organization is “deeply concerned to find that humanitarian access to the region is still significantly constrained. … These people can no longer be made to wait. Aid must not be left at a standstill. We have been standing ready to deliver food, emergency shelter and other essential materials for weeks, and we expected this deal to clear the way.”

The U.N. announced the deal with Ethiopia’s government last Wednesday, saying it was signed on Nov. 29.

The fighting in the region erupted on Nov. 4 between Ethiopia’s government and the Tigray region’s government following months of rising tensions. Since then, aid-laden trucks have waited at the borders of Tigray, even as warnings have become increasingly dire about the lack of food, fuel, clean water, cash. and other necessities.

“Full access for humanitarian actors must be guaranteed,” E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell tweeted Tuesday.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office said Monday it was working with the U.N. and others to extend humanitarian assistance “with a well-coordinated framework led by the federal government.”

On Tuesday, Redwan repeated that message and added: “No entity, multilateral or bilateral, is supposed to supplant the government.”

Even after Abiy declared victory on Nov. 28 in what he called a “law enforcement operation” against a Tigray government, he now considers illegitimate. Fighting has been reported in parts of the region, further complicating access to aid.

Thousands of people are thought to have been killed in the power struggle between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which dominated Ethiopia’s government and military for more than a quarter-century, and the government of Abiy, who sidelined the TPLF soon after taking power in 2018 and introduced dramatic political reforms that won him the Nobel Peace Prize.

Now Abiy rejects the idea of dialogue with the TPLF. Both sides began the conflict heavily armed, leading to fears of another drawn-out war in the strategic Horn of Africa nation that is the continent’s second-most populous country.

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