NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — At least 16 United Nations local employees have been detained in Ethiopia’s capital, the U.N. said Tuesday, and a government spokesman asserted they were held for their “participation in terror” under a state of emergency as the country’s yearlong war escalates and ethnic Tigrayans face a new wave of arrests.
All the detained staffers are Tigrayan, a humanitarian worker told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the U.N. was given no reason for the detentions, but Tigrayans, including lawyers, have reported widespread detentions in Addis Ababa since the state of emergency was declared, saying people are being picked up on the basis of their ethnicity alone.
“They are being detained in facilities against their will,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters, adding that some were detained over the past few days during a visit to Ethiopia by the U.N. humanitarian chief. Dujarric said another six staff members were detained but then released, and a number of employees’ dependents have also been detained. The U.N. has asked Ethiopia’s foreign ministry for their immediate release.
Government spokesman Legesse Tulu in a message to the AP said the detentions occurred “because of their wrongdoing and their participation in terror act,” without giving details. He said it has no connection “with their office and job.”
Asked for a response to the government spokesman, the U.N.’s Dujarric said: “We have no further information at this point.”
Ethiopia’s government has said it’s detaining people suspected of supporting the rival Tigray forces who have been fighting the government for the past year.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters that “if reports are true,” detentions of people based on ethnicity are “completely unacceptable.”
The government-created Ethiopian Human Rights Commission this week noted with concern that the new wave of arrests “appeared to be based on ethnicity” and included older adults and mothers with children. The AP has confirmed that the people detained included priests, monks and other clergy in the Ethiopian Orthodox church.
Envoys from the African Union and the United States are trying to encourage an immediate cease-fire by Ethiopia’s government and the Tigray forces who long dominated the national government before Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power. The government earlier this year declared the Tigray forces a terrorist group.
The AU envoy on Monday said he sees a small “window of opportunity” as the warring sides both agree that a political solution is required. But Ethiopia’s U.N. ambassador said reaching a solution would not be easy, since there is the government on one side and a “criminal group” on the other.
Thousands of people have been killed in the yearlong war, thousands have been detained and millions have been displaced. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people in the Tigray region face famine conditions under a government blockade meant to deny food, medicine and other aid from potentially reaching Tigray forces.
During his four-day Ethiopia visit, U.N. humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths met the prime minister and visited “de facto authorities” in Tigray to advocate for more access to millions of people in need.
Ethiopia’s government last month expelled seven U.N. staffers from the country, accusing them without evidence of falsely inflating the scale of the crisis. The move was condemned by other nations and international agencies.
Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Matt Lee in Washington contributed.