Ethiopia Seizes 16 U.N. Workers Amid Efforts to Halt Tigray War

Sixteen United Nations staff members in Ethiopia’s capital have been seized by the country’s authorities in recent days, the chief U.N. spokesman said Tuesday, injecting new tension into the organization’s troubled relations with the government as it faces a year-old civil war and famine.

The detentions of the staff members in the capital, Addis Ababa, also included an unspecified number of their dependents, said the spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric. No explanation was given as to why they had been detained, he said, and the United Nations was seeking their immediate release.

The civil war, centered in the restive northern Tigray region but spreading elsewhere in Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous country, has created an enormous humanitarian emergency affecting 7 million people and plunging tens of thousands into famine-like conditions.

Mr. Dujarric said all the detained staff members were of Ethiopian nationality but that he could not specify their ethnicity. News reports from Ethiopia have said many Ethiopians of Tigrayan ethnic descent have been seized in Addis Ababa since the central government declared a state of emergency last week, as Tigrayan rebels threatened to march south toward the capital.

Efforts by U.N. relief agencies to aid civilians imperiled by the conflict have been curtailed by fighting, blockades and bureaucratic impediments erected by the government, despite repeated pleas by Secretary General António Guterres to allow unimpeded access.

Ethiopian officials have accused the United Nations, Western media and some outside humanitarian groups of sympathizing with the Tigrayan rebels who have defied the Ethiopian military’s efforts to crush their insurgency. Mr. Guterres has strongly denied that the United Nations has shown any bias in the conflict.

Tensions between Mr. Guterres and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize laureate whose legacy and political future are now at risk from the strife, have grown in recent months. They took a sharply negative turn after Mr. Abiy’s government ordered the expulsions of seven top U.N. relief officials Sept. 30 on accusations that they were interfering in his country’s affairs.

Asked if Mr. Guterres was further frustrated by news of the detentions, Mr. Dujarric said: “The Secretary General is frustrated by the lack of ability to help people in need.”

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, left, shaking hands with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa in 2019.Credit…EPA, via Shutterstock

Ethiopian officials had no immediate comment on the detentions. A message left for Ethiopia’s United Nations ambassador, Taye Atske Selassie Amde, was not returned.

Understand the Conflict in Ethiopia

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A year of war. On Nov. 4, 2020, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed began a military campaign in the country’s northern Tigray region, hoping to vanquish the Tigray People’s Liberation Front — his most troublesome political foe.

Rebels turned the tide. Despite Mr. Abiy’s promise of a swift campaign, the Ethiopian military suffered a major defeat in June when it was forced to withdraw from Tigray. Now the fighting is rapidly moving south.

Tigrayan forces close in. In recent days, Tigrayan rebels captured two towns near Addis Ababa, the nation’s capital. The government declared a state of emergency and called on citizens to arm themselves.

A mounting crisis. As the rebels drew closer, Mr. Abiy vowed to “bury this enemy” in an inflammatory speech. His comments came as a U.N. report offered evidence that all sides had committed atrocities.

No end in sight. President Biden has threatened to impose sanctions on the country to coax the sides to the negotiating table, but the war’s current trajectory could cause the collapse of Ethiopia.

Mr. Dujarric reported the detentions a day after the top U.N. humanitarian relief official, Martin Griffiths, completed a four-day visit to Ethiopia, including to the capital of the Tigray region, Mekelle.

In a statement issued at the conclusion of his trip, Mr. Griffiths said he had held “constructive discussions” with Mr. Abiy and his deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Demeke Mekonnen, on “the challenges aid organizations face in getting assistance to all Ethiopians in need.”

News of the detentions also came a day after the U.N. Security Council met to discuss the conflict, with all 15 members exhorting the antagonists to resolve their issues through political negotiations.

Diplomacy aimed at achieving that outcome has intensified in recent days. The United States envoy to the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, and an African Union envoy, Olusegun Obasanjo, a former president of Nigeria, have been holding talks in Ethiopia.

Mr. Obasanjo told the Security Council on Monday that all sides in the conflict agree “individually that the differences between them are political and require a political solution through dialogue.”

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