Children wait next to sacks of wheat during a food distribution organized by the Amhara government near the village of Baker, 50 km southeast of Humera, in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia, on July 11, 2021. (EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP)
GENEVA – The United Nations on Friday condemned Ethiopia's announcement that it was expelling seven senior UN officials, and voiced concern for 5.2 million people in the Tigray region who are in need of urgent assistance as malnutrition rises.
The expulsions were announced late on Thursday, two days after the UN aid chief warned that a government aid blockade had likely forced hundreds of thousands of people in Tigray into famine.
UN human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said the plan to expel the head of its reporting team in Ethiopia was a "really grave step", adding: "The scale, seven people across three agencies, is extremely rare, if not unprecedented"
The UN Security Council will discuss the move by Ethiopia during a closed-door meeting on Friday, diplomats said.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was shocked by Ethiopia's move to expel UN officials and said on Thursday that the world body was engaging the government "in the expectation that the concerned UN staff will be allowed to continue their important work."
"It is critically important that the humanitarian operation continues – and it does," Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told a Geneva briefing Friday. "Until now there is no indication that it (Ethiopia's decision) stops the operation."
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International condemnation of the humanitarian situation in the northern Ethiopia has been growing. The United States threatened sanctions against any party obstructing aid to Tigray, which has been mired in conflict for nearly 11 months.
Ethiopia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to requests for comment on the expulsions. Ethiopia has previously denied blocking food aid.
UN human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said the plan to expel the head of its reporting team in Ethiopia was a "really grave step", adding: "The scale, seven people across three agencies, is extremely rare, if not unprecedented."
"We are pretty much united across the UN that this is not an acceptable situation," said Colville.
The world body hopes the decision will be changed or reviewed, said Laerke.
"It is critically important that the humanitarian operation continues."
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The current situation is critical, Laerke said, noting that 79 percent of pregnant and lactating women screened in Tigray last week were diagnosed with acute malnutrition. Only about 11 percent of the trucks needed to bring life-saving food have entered Tigray since mid-July, said Laerke.
The conflict's spillover to neighboring Amhara and Afar regions means humanitarian needs and displacement are rising.
The UN Security Council will privately discuss on Friday the expulsion, diplomats said.