Ethiopia has detained 16 local members of the United Nations in the capital, Addis Ababa, citing their “participation in terror acts” in the country.
A UN spokesperson said on Tuesday the government forces had taken the Ethiopian workers of the world body from their homes.
“They are being detained in facilities against their will,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters at the UN headquarters.
Dujarric said another six staff members had been detained but then released, and a number of employees’ dependents had also been detained.
Some were detained over the past few days during a visit to Ethiopia by the UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths’ four-day visit to the country.
“We are of course actively working with the government of Ethiopia to secure their immediate release,” Dujarric said, referring to the detainees.
Griffiths met Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and “de facto authorities” in Tigray to advocate for more access to millions of people in need of aid. Tigray has been the scene of conflict since November 2020, when the prime minister sent troops there to topple the ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in response to alleged attacks on army camps.
Government spokesman Legesse Tulu told AP on Tuesday that the UN staffers had been detained “because of their wrongdoing and their participation in terror acts.”
Asked for a response to the government allegations, Dujarric told AP, “We have no further information at this point.”
The government confirmed their detention under a state of emergency that was declared last week.
The six-month state of emergency allows the Ethiopian government to arrest, without a court order, anyone suspected of collaborating with a terrorist group. The government said it was detaining people suspected of supporting the Tigray forces, who have been fighting the government for the past year.
Lawyers say the government has intensified the arbitrary detention of ethnic Tigrayans over the past week under the new measures.
Earlier this year, the government declared the Tigray forces a terrorist group.
Ethiopian Human Rights Commission raised concern about the new wave of arrests this week, saying that the detentions “appeared to be based on ethnicity” and included older adults and mothers with children.
UN political and peace-building affairs chief Rosemary DiCarlo warned on Monday that “the risk of Ethiopia plunging into a widening civil war is only too real.”
The war in Tigray has killed thousands of people and, according to the UN, pushed hundreds of thousands into famine-like conditions due to a de facto humanitarian blockade on the northern region.
Tensions between Addis Ababa and the UN have been high throughout the war. In September, Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry announced it was expelling seven senior UN officials for “meddling” in the country’s affairs.