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UN Secretary-General António Guterres expressed his shock at the Ethiopian government’s decision to suspend seven senior staff this week amid concerns over a blockade of aid to war-torn Tigray.

Ethiopia’s decision follows a warning from the UN chief of staff that an aid blockade by Addis Ababa could put hundreds of thousands of people in starvation conditions.

“I was shocked by the information that the Ethiopian government has declared seven UN officials, including senior UN humanitarian officials, as persona non grata,” Guterres said.

“In Ethiopia, the UN provides life-saving assistance – including food, medicine, water and sanitation supplies – to people in need.” The UN said 5.2 million people in Tigray need help.

Guterres’ comments come after Ethiopia on Thursday suspended seven senior UN officials for “interfering in domestic affairs” and giving them 72 hours to leave a country where thousands of people have been killed and 2 million have fled their homes since ‘a civil war broke out in November in the northernmost region of Tigray. Since July, the war has spread to neighboring Amhara and Afar.

Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister and Nobel laureate, sent troops to quell unrest in Tigray following an attack on Ethiopian forces by troops loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF.

Tigrayans have accused his government of seeking help in the region, something officials in Addis Ababa have repeatedly denied. Aid agencies say they do not have unrestricted access. They also say the situation is extremely dangerous for their staff. According to the UN, 23 humanitarian workers killed in Tigray since the conflict began.

Ethiopian authorities have repeatedly accused aid workers of favoring and even helping Tigrayan fighters. Five of the seven UN workers suspended work for OCHA, the UN aid agency, one for Unicef ​​and the seventh for the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which is working on a joint investigation with Ethiopia State-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission allegations of massacres and sexual violence by all parties.

On Tuesday, Martin Griffiths, head of OCHA, head of UN aid, told Reuters in New York that a nearly three-month-long “de facto blockade” of Tigray endangered relief efforts. ‘Let the trucks get going,’ he said, adding that ‘it was man-made; it can be rectified by the act of the government ‘.

He said we predicted in June that 400,000 people were in starvation conditions, and the assumption was that if they did not get enough help, they would fall into starvation, ‘Griffiths said, adding:’ I have to accept that something like that happens. ‘

Ethiopia has been the fastest growing economy in Africa for the past two decades. The Ethiopian government has accused the international community of exaggerating and swallowing the current situation, which it says is TPLF propaganda.

Jen Psaki, White House Press Secretary told reporters on Thursday that the US “condemns” the expulsion of UN personnel from Ethiopia. “We are deeply concerned that this action is continuing a pattern of the Ethiopian government to impede the delivery of food, medicine and other life-saving objects,” she said, warning that the US impose sanctions. “We will not hesitate to use this or any other tool at our disposal to respond quickly and decisively to those who obstruct humanitarian aid to the people of Ethiopia.”

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