UN says Ethiopia detains 72 World Food Programme drivers in war-hit north

A woman holds a banner with the portrait of Primer Minister Abiy Ahmed during a rally in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on November 7, 2021, in support of the national defense forces. PHOTO/AFP

What you need to know:

  • A UN spokesperson said the new detentions had occurred in the capital of Afar province, on the only functional road leading into famine-threatened Tigray.

The United Nations said Wednesday that Ethiopia had detained 72 drivers working for the World Food Programme (WFP) in the country's conflict-torn north.

The news, which came a day after the UN reported the arrests of 22 employees in the capital Addis Ababa, is likely to further inflame tensions with the government following a decision in September to expel seven senior UN officials for "meddling" in the country's affairs.

A UN spokesperson said the new detentions had occurred in the capital of Afar province, on the only functional road leading into famine-threatened Tigray.

"We confirm that 72 outsourced drivers contracted by WFP have been detained in Semera. We are liaising with the Government of Ethiopia to understand the reasons behind their detention," a UN spokesperson said. 

"We are advocating with the government to ensure their safety and the full protection of their legal and human rights," the spokesperson added.

Officials last week announced a six-month nationwide emergency amid rising fears that fighters from the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) rebel groups could advance on the capital.

Lawyers say arbitrary detentions of ethnic Tigrayans -- commonplace during the war -- have surged since then, ensnaring thousands, with the new measures allowing the authorities to hold anyone suspected of supporting "terrorist groups" without a warrant. 

Law enforcement officials describe such detentions as part of a legitimate crackdown on the TPLF and OLA. 

The UN on Tuesday said 22 Ethiopian staff had been detained in Addis Ababa. 

Six were freed while the remaining 16 were in custody Tuesday night, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters at the world body's headquarters.

Information on the ethnicity of the drivers detained in Semera was not immediately available, though the UN has in the past hired ethnic Tigrayans to transport food and other aid into Tigray.

Famine fears 

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray last November to topple the TPLF, a move he said came in response to rebel attacks on army camps.

Though the 2019 Nobel Peace laureate vowed a swift victory, by late June the TPLF had regrouped and retaken most of the region including its capital Mekele.

Since then Tigray has been under what the UN describes as a de facto humanitarian blockade.

Only 15 percent of necessary aid has been able to cross from Semera into Tigray since mid-July, with hundreds of thousands of people living in famine-like conditions, according to UN estimates.

Last week, the UN said no aid trucks had entered northern Ethiopia since October 18.

Movement of aid workers in and out of the region by road has been barred since October 28.

Media 'intimidation' 

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said this week that the emergency measures posed risks not just to Tigrayans but also media organisations and aid groups, among others. 

On Tuesday night a police official in Ethiopia's Somali region announced that authorities were closing a private media outlet, Nabad TV.

The official, Mohamud Sheikh Ahmed, accused Nabad of violating the state of emergency by broadcasting content that "incites violence and bloodshed."

Nabad was founded by Filsan Abdullahi Ahmed, who went on to serve as women's minister in Abiy's government and was the first federal official to acknowledge that rapes had taken place in Tigray during the war.

In late September she announced her resignation, saying that "any situation that compromises my ethics is contrary to my convictions and values."

Filsan told AFP Wednesday that her parents as well as Nabad staff had been detained overnight by police.

"Basically they are just intimidating people with this lawless state of emergency," she said.