UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expresses surprise at Ethiopia’s expulsions.

UN secretary-general António Guterres has voiced his shock over the Ethiopian government’s move to expel seven senior staff this week amid concerns about a blockade of aid to the war-torn region of Tigray.

Ethiopia’s decision follows a warning from the UN aid chief that an aid blockade by Addis Ababa may be putting hundreds of thousands of people in famine-like conditions.

“I was shocked by the information that the government of Ethiopia has declared seven UN officials, including senior UN humanitarian officials, as persona non grata,” Guterres said.

“In Ethiopia, the UN is delivering lifesaving aid – including food, medicine, water, and sanitation supplies — to people in desperate need.” The UN has said 5.2m people in Tigray need help.

Guterres’ comments came after Ethiopia on Thursday expelled seven senior UN officials for “meddling in the internal affairs” and gave them 72 hours to leave a country where thousands of people are believed to have been killed and 2m have fled their homes since a civil war erupted in November in the northernmost region of Tigray. Since July, the war has spread to neighbouring Amhara and Afar.

Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister and Nobel Peace laureate, sent troops to quell unrest in Tigray after what he said was an attack on Ethiopian forces by troops loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF.

Tigrayans have accused his government of blocking aid entering the region, something that officials in Addis Ababa have repeatedly denied. Aid agencies say they do not have the unfettered access needed. They also say the situation is extremely dangerous for their staff. According to the UN, 23 humanitarian workers have been killed in Tigray since the conflict started.

Ethiopian authorities have repeatedly accused aid workers of favouring and even helping Tigrayan fighters. Five of the seven UN workers being expelled work for OCHA, the UN aid agency, one for Unicef, and the seventh for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which is working on a joint investigation with Ethiopia’s state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission into allegations of massacres and sexual violence by all parties.

On Tuesday, UN aid chief Martin Griffiths, head of OCHA, told Reuters in New York that an almost three month-long “de facto blockade” of Tigray had imperilled aid deliveries. “Get those trucks moving,” he said, adding that “this is man-made, this can be remedied by the act of the government”.

He said that back in June, “we predicted that there were 400,000 people in famine-like conditions, at risk of famine, and the supposition was that if no aid got to them adequately they would slip into famine”, said Griffiths, adding: “I have to assume that something like that is happening.”

Ethiopia has been the fastest-growing large economy in Africa for two decades. The Ethiopian government has accused the international community of exaggerating the current situation and swallowing what it says is TPLF propaganda.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Thursday that the US “condemns” the ejection of UN personnel from Ethiopia. “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,” she said, warning the US could impose sanctions. “We will not hesitate to use this or any other tool at our disposal to respond quickly and decisively to those who obstruct humanitarian assistance to the people of Ethiopia.”

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