The Ethiopian government has told seven senior UN officials to leave the country, accusing them of “meddling in internal affairs”.
A statement from the foreign ministry said the officials – who include staff from the UN humanitarian agency, the UN human rights office and the children’s agency, Unicef – must leave Ethiopia within 72 hours.
The UN secretary-general, António Guterres, said he was shocked by the news, adding: “In Ethiopia, the UN is delivering lifesaving aid – including food, medicine, water and sanitation supplies – to people in desperate need. I have full confidence in the UN staff who are in Ethiopia doing this work.”
The news followed warnings from UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths this week that Ethiopia’s de facto blockade of aid has imposed famine on hundreds of thousands of people in the country’s northern Tigray region, which has been racked by conflict for nearly a year.
He told Reuters there was an escalating crisis inside the region of 6 million people, with children dying of hunger and medicine stocks running out. Child malnutrition is at its highest rate since the Somalia famine of 2010-12, which killed up to 260,000 people.
There has been increasing international criticism of Ethiopia’s handling of aid, with the US government threatening sanctions on the fighting parties.
Ethiopia’s government has stopped food, medicine and fuel deliveries entering Tigray for nearly three months, in a bid to block support for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which has been fighting its troops since the federal army launched a bloody offensive last November. Thousands of people have died in the conflict.
With swarms of desert locusts ravaging crops in Ethiopia, and potentially poor harvests on the way, problems are mounting on what is already the world’s worst hunger crisis in a decade, warned Griffiths.
According to UN humanitarian services, 5.2 million people need help in Ethiopia’s northern regions of Tigray, Amhara and Afar. Aid delivery including fuel into Tigray remains challenging.
The US strongly condemned the expulsion and called on the Ethiopian government to reverse the decision. Secretary of state Antony Blinken said in a statement that Ethiopia must now free the flow of aid to citizens, or face a wave of sanctions.
“The expulsion is counterproductive to international efforts to keep civilians safe, and deliver lifesaving humanitarian assistance to the millions in dire need,” Blinken said.
“We will not hesitate to use this authority or other tools to respond to those who obstruct humanitarian assistance to the people of Ethiopia.
“We call on the international community similarly to employ all appropriate tools to apply pressure on the government of Ethiopia and any other actors impeding humanitarian access.”