Ethiopia’s forces shoot at, detain UN staffers in Tigray

By CARA ANNA Associated Press

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Ethiopia’s government says its security forces shot at and detained United Nations staffers as they tried to reach part of the embattled Tigray region.

Senior official Redwan Hussein told reporters that the U.N. staffers were to blame because they “broke” two checkpoints to go to areas where “they were not supposed to go.” He said the staffers have since been released.

The shooting occurred amid soaring frustration among humanitarians as aid is still not freely reaching the Tigray region more than a week after the U.N. and Ethiopia’s government signed a deal for access.

Ethiopia’s government is making it clear it intends to manage the process, but the U.N. has openly sought unfettered and neutral access.

Ethiopia’s government late last month declared victory in the conflict in the Tigray region against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The government asserts that the fighting has stopped, but the TPLF has said fighting continues.

Impatience is rising as humanitarian officials say they still don’t have access to Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region more than a week after Ethiopia’s government and the United Nations signed a deal to allow in desperately needed food and other aid.

“Regaining access to refugees and others in need is urgent and critical for UNHCR and humanitarian organizations,” the head of the U.N. refugee agency, Filippo Grandi, tweeted Tuesday, amid growing fears about nearly 100,000 refugees from Eritrea trapped in the conflict.

In a separate statement, the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, Jan Egeland, said his organization is “deeply concerned to find that humanitarian access to the region is still significantly constrained. … These people can no longer be made to wait. Aid must not be left at a standstill. We have been standing ready to deliver food, emergency shelter and other essential materials for weeks, and we expected this deal to clear the way.”

The U.N. announced the deal with Ethiopia’s government last Wednesday, saying it was signed on Nov. 29. The agreement allows access only to areas under Ethiopian government control but even those areas are apparently not yet open.

The fighting in the region erupted Nov. 4 between Ethiopia’s government and the government of the Tigray region following months of rising tensions. Since then, aid-laden trucks have waited at the borders of Tigray, a region of 6 million people, even as warnings have become increasingly dire about the lack of food, fuel, clean water, cash and other necessities.

“Full access for humanitarian actors must be guaranteed,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell tweeted Tuesday.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office said Monday it was working with the U.N. and others to extend humanitarian assistance “with a well-coordinated framework led by the federal government.”

The U.N., however, has stressed the importance of a humanitarian approach that is neutral and unfettered.

Even after Abiy declared victory on Nov. 28 in what he called a “law enforcement operation” against a Tigray government he now considers illegitimate, fighting has continued in parts of the region, further complicating access for aid.

Thousands of people are thought to have been killed in the power struggle between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which dominated Ethiopia’s government and military for more than a quarter-century, and the government of Abiy, who sidelined the TPLF soon after taking power in 2018 and introduced dramatic political reforms that won him the Nobel Peace Prize.

Now Abiy rejects the idea of dialogue with the TPLF. Both sides are heavily armed, leading to fears of another drawn-out conflict in the strategic Horn of Africa nation that is the continent’s second-most populous country.

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