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Ethiopia expels U.N. officials amid signs of famine in the Tigray region

A woman in Ethiopia’s Tigray region argues with others over the allocation of yellow split peas in May 2021. (Ben Curtis/AP)
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Ethiopia on Thursday ordered the expulsion of seven senior United Nations personnel as it faced mounting pressure to end a blockade of the embattled Tigray region and aid agencies warned of impending famine.

The government accused the officials of “meddling” in Ethiopia’s internal affairs and gave them 72 hours to leave, according to a statement from the Foreign Ministry.

Among those expelled was the country representative of the U.N. Children’s Fund and the head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the U.N.’s emergency relief arm.

“When you see an expulsion at that level, it comes out of left field,” UNICEF spokesman James Elder said of the decision.

The order came just two days after U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths blamed the worsening humanitarian crisis in Tigray on Ethiopia’s government and urged it to step up aid deliveries to the region.

“This is man-made, this can be remedied by the act of government,” Griffiths said in an interview with Reuters this week. In the last three months, just 10 percent of the aid supplies needed for Tigray have reached the area, he said.

“The lack of food will mean that people will start to die,” Griffiths said in a separate interview with the Associated Press on Tuesday.

The conflict in Tigray, in Ethiopia’s north, began nearly a year ago when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, launched a military offensive against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a regional and ethnic political party that ruled Ethiopia for three decades before the current government.

Since then, the war has displaced roughly 2 million people and left hundreds of thousands on the brink of famine.

On Thursday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that the U.S. government “condemns in the strongest possible terms” Ethiopia’s “unprecedented action” to expel U.N. leadership from the country.

“We’re deeply concerned that this action continues a pattern by the Ethiopian government of obstructing the delivery of food, medicine and other lifesaving supplies to those most in need,” she said, adding that President Biden was prepared to impose financial sanctions on those “prolonging the conflict in northern Ethiopia.”

“We call on the U.N. Security Council and members of the international community to take urgent action to make clear to the government of Ethiopia that impeding humanitarian operations and depriving your own citizens of the basic means of survival is unacceptable,” she said.

The move on Thursday, however, signaled that Ethiopia is not backing down from international pressure, said William Davison, senior Ethiopia analyst for the International Crisis Group.

It also “intimidates actors who are on the ground, and will make them less likely to publicize or adopt positions that they know are going to upset the authorities,” he said.

In a statement, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said that he was “shocked” by Ethiopia’s decision.

“In Ethiopia, the UN is delivering life-saving aid — including food, medicine, water, and sanitation supplies — to people in desperate need,” he said. “I have full confidence in the UN staff who are in Ethiopia doing this work.”

On Friday, more U.N. officials joined the criticism. “The scale, seven people across three agencies, is extremely rare, if not unprecedented,” said U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville. He called Ethiopia’s move “not an acceptable situation.”

Jens Laerke, an OCHA spokesman, said in Geneva that it was “critically important” that humanitarian work continues in Ethiopia.

Five of the staffers who were ordered to leave work for OCHA. But one U.N. employee was there reporting for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which is investigating human rights violations and alleged abuses committed by all parties in Tigray.

“The U.N. was doing incredibly important work and that work must continue,” said David Del Conte, a campaigner for Refugees International who is leading the organization’s work on the Tigray famine.

The expulsions Thursday are “an extension of a government policy to blockade Tigray from humanitarian assistance, or from the world,” Del Conte said.

Chason reported from Juba, South Sudan.

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