Ethiopia detains 72 World Food Programme drivers

​​The United Nations said on Wednesday that Ethiopia had detained 72 drivers working for the World Food Programme (WFP) in the country’s conflict-torn north. The news, which came a day after the UN reported the arrests of 22 employees in the capital Addis Ababa, is likely to further inflame tensions with the government following a decision in September to expel seven senior UN officials for “meddling” in the country’s affairs.

A UN spokesperson said the latest detentions had occurred in the capital of Afar province, on the only functional road leading into famine-threatened Tigray. “We are liaising with the government of Ethiopia to understand the reasons behind their detention. We are advocating with the government to ensure their safety and the full protection of their legal and human rights.”

Officials last week announced a six-month nationwide emergency amid rising fears that fighters from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) rebel groups could advance on the capital.

Lawyers say arbitrary detentions of Tigrayans — commonplace during the war — have surged since then, ensnaring thousands, with the new measures allowing the authorities to hold anyone suspected of supporting “terrorist groups” without a warrant. 

Law enforcement officials describe such detentions as part of a legitimate crackdown on the TPLF and OLA. 

UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric on Tuesday said that 22 Ethiopian employees had been detained in Addis Ababa. Six were freed and the remaining 16 were in custody Tuesday night.

Information on who the 72 drivers detained in Semera are was not immediately available, although the UN has in the past hired Tigrayans to transport food and other aid into Tigray.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray last November to topple the TPLF, in response to alleged attacks on army camps.

Though the 2019 Nobel Peace laureate vowed a swift victory, by late June the TPLF had retaken most of the region including its capital, Mekele.

Since then Tigray has been under what the UN describes as a humanitarian blockade.

Only 15% of aid has been able to cross from Semera into Tigray since mid-July, with hundreds of thousands of people living in famine-like conditions, according to UN estimates.

Foreign envoys are scrambling to end the war and mitigate further suffering, hoping that an African Union-led push can bring about a cessation of hostilities before a new surge in fighting.

The US said this week there was a “small window” to reach a deal, although it’s far from clear how major divisions will be bridged.

TPLF spokesperson Getachew Reda appeared to dismiss peace initiatives Wednesday, saying on Twitter that they seemed “mainly about saving #Abiy”.

The fighting has extracted a huge humanitarian toll, with rights groups on Wednesday issuing new reports on sexual violence.

Human Rights Watch said the Abiy government’s “effective siege” of Tigray, where Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers are accused of mass rapes, was preventing survivors from getting health care and other critical services.

Amnesty International said Tigrayan rebels had raped and robbed women during an attack in the Amhara region, south of Tigray.

The Ethiopian government has said it is committed to investigating acts of sexual violence and other abuses.

But the first federal official to speak out about the issue, former women’s minister Filsan Abdullahi Ahmed, has run afoul of the authorities, with a police official on Tuesday announcing the closure of a private media outlet founded by her.

The official, Mohamud Sheikh Ahmed, accused Nabad TV of violating the state of emergency by broadcasting content that “incites violence and bloodshed”.

Filsan said on Wednesday that her parents and Nabad employees had been detained overnight by police.

“Basically they are just intimidating people with this lawless state of emergency,” she said. Filsan resigned from her position in late September, saying: “Any situation that compromises my ethics is contrary to my convictions and values.” — AFP

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