UN says last of at least 16 staffers held in Ethiopia freed

AP , Saturday 19 Feb 2022

The last UN staff member detained by the Ethiopian government has been released, ending a months-long effort to gain freedom for at least 16 UN employees picked up since late October during the ongoing war in the country's north, the United Nations said Friday.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said two others were freed ``in the past few days.'' All three were Ethiopian nationals.

The UN announced on Nov. 9 that at least 16 of its local employees had been detained in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, and a government spokesman asserted they were held for their ``participation in terror'' under a state of emergency.

At about the same time, Ethiopian authorities arrested arrested and detained some 70 truck drivers contracted to the United Nations and other groups to deliver humanitarian aid. The UN announced on Nov. 18 that they had all been released.

Dujarric said Friday the United Nations repeatedly raised the issue of the detained U.N. staffers, and ``had never really gotten any clarity as to why they were detained in the first place.''

``But at this point, we're just really, really glad that they are released,'' he said.

According to the UN, the first arrest was on Oct. 31, 2021, with the majority of arrests taking place in November although there were arrests in December and January as well. The first releases came in mid-November.

UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, who returned from Ethiopia last week, said she raised the issue of the last three staffers still being held during meetings with the country's leaders.

The arrests strained relations between the United Nations and the Ethiopian government.

``I think we have been stunned by the response that we have had from the Ethiopian government but I do think that it's on the mend.'' Mohammed told reporters last week. ``The perceptions from the Ethiopian people that we cannot be trusted, must be corrected and the leaders in Ethiopia have to start to help us do that.''

The deputy secretary-general said she thinks her visit helped show that the U.N. is remaining in the country and is ``loyal to our commitment in supporting the people of Ethiopia.''

Months of political tensions between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government and leaders in northern Tigray who once dominated Ethiopia's government exploded into war in November 2020.

Following some of the fiercest fighting of the conflict, Ethiopia soldiers fled the Tigray capital, Mekele, in June 2021, and the government declared a national state of emergency with sweeping powers. A drone-assisted government military offensive halted the Tigrayans' approach to Ethiopia's capital. Addis Ababa. In December, the Tigrayans retreated back to Tigray.

The war is believed to have caused the deaths of tens of thousands of people and the displacement of millions.

Although the conflict has subsided in several places, notably within the Tigray and neighboring Amhara regions, and lawmakers voted earlier this week to lift the state of emergency, concerns remain about fighting in the northeastern Afar region.

Dujarric told reporters the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, reported Friday that they are working with the Ethiopian authorities and partners to provide emergency aid to thousands of Eritrean refugees who fled a refugee camp in the Afar region due to fighting.

``Refugees who trekked the long distance to the regional capital in Semera told UNHCR that armed men stole their belongings and occupied their homes,'' he said. ``According to their testimonies, at least five refugees were killed and several women were kidnapped.''

Dujarric said that UNHCR remains worried about the safety and well-being of thousands of Eritrean refugees caught up in the conflict, ``with yet another refugee camp severely impacted.''

On the humanitarian front, aid for millions in the Tigray region remains severely limited under what the UN has described as a ``de facto humanitarian blockade.''

On Monday, the World Health Organization said it has been granted access to send medical supplies to Tigray for the first time in six months, but said fuel shortages were hampering its distribution.

Short link: