UN says at least 16 staff, dependents detained in Ethiopia

Members of Ethiopian Federal Police patrol during a pro-government rally in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Nov 7, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (REUTERS) - At least 16 United Nations staff and dependents have been detained in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, a UN spokesman said on Tuesday (Nov 9), amid reports of widespread arrests of ethnic Tigrayans.

"We are, of course, actively working with the government of Ethiopia to secure their immediate release," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York.

The ethnicity of the detained UN staff members was not immediately clear.

The state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said on Sunday it had received many reports of arrests of Tigrayans in the capital, including elders and mothers with children.

Daniel Bekele, head of the commission, told Reuters on Tuesday that it was monitoring "the arrests of hundreds of Tigrayans in Addis Ababa".

Police have denied making ethnically motivated arrests, saying they are only targeting supporters of the rebellious Tigrayan forces fighting the central government.

Fasika Fanta, spokesman for the Addis Ababa police, told Reuters he had no information on the arrests of UN staff.

"It is new for me (to hear)," he said.

The year-long conflict in northern Ethiopia between the government and Tigrayan forces loyal to the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) has intensified in recent weeks after he TPLF pushed south. Tigrayan forces and their allies have threatened to march on the capital.

Ethiopia declared a state of emergency on Nov 2. That proclamation permits the government to arbitrarily arrest, without a court order, anyone suspected of collaborating with a terrorist group. Parliament designated the TPLF as a terrorist group earlier this year.

Britain tightened its travel advice on Tuesday, advising citizens to leave Ethiopia while commercial flights are available, after the United States on Nov 5 advised all citizens to leave Ethiopia as soon as possible.

Zambia evacuated non-essential staff from Ethiopia on Tuesday, its foreign ministry said.

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Diplomatic push

Diplomatic efforts continue to try to lay the ground for talks.

"Our position remains that there can be no military solution to this conflict and only dialogue can produce a lasting peace," Britain's minister for Africa, Vicky Ford, told journalists.

Former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo is in Ethiopia on behalf of the African Union to try to facilitate talks. The TPLF's spokesperson, Getachew Reda, told Reuters they had held discussions with him.

"He wanted to know if we believe there is the possibility of a political solution to this problem. We said yes," he told Reuters. But, Getachew added, "we are not willing to retreat because of the siege, because of the blockade."

The UN has accused the government of operating a de facto blockade preventing humanitarian aid from entering Tigray. The government has denied blocking aid.

Getachew also said that a government air strike had killed dozens in the town of Chefa Robit and there had been drone and air strikes on Wollo University in Dessie and the town of Chifra in Afar.

Reuters was unable to independently confirm his account as communications to those areas are down. Government and military spokesmen did not return calls seeking comment.

The US State Department on Monday said Washington believes there is a small window of an opening to work with the African Union to make progress on peacefully resolving the conflict, as a special envoy returned to Addis Ababa.

Ethiopian government spokesman Legesse Tulu and foreign affairs ministry spokesman Dina Mufti did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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