UN staff members detained in Ethiopia as crisis worsens

Commercial and residential buildings stand along a highway illuminated at dusk in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Feb 24, 2015. (SIMON DAWSON / BLOOMBERG)

The United Nations said 16 staff members have been detained in Ethiopia’s capital, as a leader of the Tigray rebels warned mediation efforts to end the crisis in the Horn of African nation may fail.

“There has been no explanation” for the detention, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York on Tuesday. “Our staff on the ground is working with the national authorities,” he said, noting the detentions occurred “over the last few days.”

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said on Nov 8 that the government was detaining people “in a manner that appeared to be based on identity and ethnicity,” following widespread arrests after the state of emergency was declared 

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said on Nov 8 that the government was detaining people “in a manner that appeared to be based on identity and ethnicity,” following widespread arrests after the state of emergency was declared. 

UN security officers “have visited the detained colleagues,” Farhan Haq, another UN spokesman, said. Formal requests have “also been sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs” seeking “the immediate release of the detained personnel,” he said.

Ethiopia has declared a state of emergency as rebel fighters advanced toward the capital, Addis Ababa. The yearlong conflict between the federal army and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front has escalated since the start of October, with the rebels advancing steadily south. 

The TPLF downplayed a mediation initiative by the African Union after the special envoy, Olusegun Obasanjo, a former president of Nigeria, met with Debretsion Gebremichael, the leader of the rebel group. 

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‘Doomed to fail’

“Any effort that fails to address the conditions we have put forward is doomed to fail,” Getachew Reda, a senior TPLF official said. “It is clear this is mostly about Abiy’s survival, not Ethiopia’s,” he said.

The humanitarian situation is dire in Ethiopia, with an estimated 7 million people in need of assistance. Both parties to the conflict have been accused of committing violations that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the United Nations Human Rights Office found in a joint investigation.

The UK advised its nationals to leave the country, after the US did the same last week. A US special envoy, diplomat Jeffrey Feltman, is in Ethiopia to try to advance talks on ending the civil war.