Fri. Dec 3rd, 2021

The United Nations has said Ethiopian authorities have detained 72 executives working for the World Food Program (WFP) in the country’s conflict-ridden north.

The development on Wednesday came a day after the UN reported arrests of 22 of its employees in the capital, Addis Ababa, as international alarm rises over reported widespread arrests of ethnic Tigrayans amid an escalation in fighting.

A UN spokesman said the latest arrests took place in the capital of Afar province, on the only functional road leading to the Tigray region, where hundreds of thousands of people live in famine-like conditions, according to the world body.

“We confirm that 72 outsourced managers who were contracted by WFP were detained in Semera. “We are in touch with the Ethiopian government to understand the reasons behind their arrest,” the spokesman said.

“We urge the government to ensure their safety and the full protection of their legal and human rights.”

The government announced a six-month nationwide emergency last week amid growing fears that Tigrayan fighters and Allied Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) rebels could advance to the capital.

Lawyers say arbitrary detentions of ethnic Tigrayans have increased since then, with new measures allowing authorities to detain anyone suspected of supporting “terrorist groups” without a warrant. Law enforcement officials describe such arrests as part of legal operations against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which has been designated by the government as a “terrorist” group.

The head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission spoke to Al Jazeera on Wednesday and said he was concerned about the mass arrests of ethnic Tigranes.

“There seems to be an ethnic element to these arrests, which worries us, in a sense that largely ethnic Tigrayans have been targeted for house searches and arrests,” Daniel Bekele said, adding that the state-appointed commission had detained “hundreds” of people.

“I do understand that the state of emergency gives the police powers to arrest people on reasonable grounds, but we are concerned about the risk of the state emergency and its regulations being applied in the wrong way,” he added. .

But Ethiopia’s government has denied targeting Tigrayans based on their ethnicity.

“There is no systematic arrest… because of your profile,” Foreign Minister Redwan Hussein told Al Jazeera. “Since the state of emergency was actually instituted by the government, people have been vigilant so that citizens in their neighborhoods and each other are watching out for possible attacks. “People can therefore inform the police if they see something unusual,” he said.

“If the police do not have sufficient reasons to suspect, the people will be released.”

Asked about the detention of UN staff, Hussein said they were not “arrested just because they work for any UN institution”.

“If they did nothing, they would be released, but that’s not because they work for humanitarian activities,” he added.

UN spokeswoman Stephane Dujarric said on Tuesday that 22 Ethiopian staff had been detained in Addis Ababa. Six were released while the remaining 16 – all ethnic Tigrayans – were detained on Tuesday night, he added, noting that “no explanation” was given about the detentions.

Information on the ethnicity of the drivers detained in Semera was not immediately available, although in the past the UN has hired ethnic Tigrayans to transport food and other aid to Tigray.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops to Tigray last November to overthrow the TPLF, a move he said came in response to attacks on federal army camps.

Although the Nobel laureate for 2019 promised a quick victory, by the end of June, the Tigrayan forces had recaptured most of the region, including its capital Mekelle.

Since then, Tigray has been among what the UN describes as a de-facto humanitarian blockade.

Only 15 percent of the aid needed has been able to cross from Semera to Tigray since mid-July, according to the UN.

Foreign envoys scramble to end the war and alleviate further suffering, hoping that an African Union-led pressure can bring about a cessation of hostilities before a new upsurge in fighting.

The US said this week that there was a “small window” to reach an agreement, although it was far from clear how much division would be bridged.

TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda on Wednesday rejected peace initiatives, saying on Twitter it seemed “primarily to save Abiy”.

Attempts that fail to address our conditions and the tendency to confuse humanitarian issues with politics are doomed to fail, ”he added.

The fighting has taken a huge humanitarian toll, with rights groups issuing new reports on sexual violence in the war on Wednesday.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the government’s effective siege of Tigray – where Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers were accused of mass rape – prevented survivors from receiving health care and other critical services.

international amnesty said Tigrayan rebels have raped, robbed and beaten women during an attack on a village in the Amhara region, south of Tigray.

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