Ethiopian authorities have detained dozens of UN staff and drivers as concerns grow over a worsening civil war. There have been reports of widespread arrests of ethnic Tigrayans, and that rebel fighters are advancing towards the capital.
The United Nations said on Wednesday that 72 drivers – all working as contractors for the UN World Food Programme (WFP) – had been detained in Semera, the capital of the Afar region, a day after 16 of its staff and their dependants were arrested in Addis Ababa.
The UN said it was speaking to the Ethiopian government to establish why the workers had been detained.
The developments follow warnings from the United States and African Union (AU) that there may only be a small window of opportunity to end the conflict in Ethiopia, while the UN said the risk of the nation spiralling into a widening civil war was “only too real” as rebels make gains.
The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said that the government was detaining people “in a manner that appeared to be based on identity and ethnicity”.
The state body said it had received reports of hundreds of Tigrayans being arrested in the capital since a state of emergency was declared on 2 November. Declaring a state of emergency allows the government to detain anyone suspected of collaborating with a terrorist group, requires citizens to carry identification cards, and permits searches of private homes.
The Ethiopian government did not respond to a request for comment on the detention of the 72 drivers in the Afar region. On Tuesday, government spokesperson Legesse Tulu toldReuters he had no information on the arrests of the UN staff and their dependants.
However, a spokesperson for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Getachew Reda, said the state of emergency was being used as cover to conduct mass arrests of Tigrayans.
Northeastern Afar borders the Tigray region, where conflict erupted a year ago between federal troops and forces loyal to the TPLF, the region’s former ruling party.
The fighting has killed thousands of people, forced at least 2 million to flee their homes, and spread into the Afar and Amhara regions, jeopardising the stability of Africa’s second most populous country.
The war has intensified in recent weeks as Tigrayan forces and their allies have made advances and are threatening to march on the capital.
In a separate development, Amnesty International has published a report containing testimonies of women from the Amhara region who say they were sexually abused and raped by Tigrayan forces in August.
Amnesty said that that the year-long conflict between the central government and rebel fighters had been marked by allegations of rights abuses on all sides.
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