UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said on Thursday he was “shocked” by Ethiopia’s decision to expel seven senior UN officials working there, saying it could deepen the country’s humanitarian crisis.
The secretary general said his team is working in Ethiopia to stave off a looming famine and that he was consulting with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed with the expectation that the UN staffers would be allowed to stay.
“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,” Mr Guterres said in a statement.
“The UN is delivering life-saving 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.”
Ethiopia’s foreign ministry earlier announced its intention to expel the UN officials, including country heads of the UN children's fund and the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Ocha.
The seven officials have 72 hours to exit the landlocked, Horn of Africa nation of some 113 million people, the ministry said in a statement, accusing them of “meddling” in the country’s internal affairs.
The move comes amid mounting concern over human rights abuses in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region and surrounding areas, and as all parties to the fighting in northern Ethiopia face the possibility of sanctions.
UN aid chief Martin Griffiths this week said that hundreds of thousands of people in Tigray were likely experiencing famine due to the government’s nearly three-month “de facto blockade” of the rebel-held region.
Five of the seven expelled UN officials work for Mr Griffiths’s Ocha unit. A sixth works for Unicef; the seventh works for the UN’s human rights team, which is probing reports of mass killings of civilians, gang rapes and other abuses in Tigray.
UN data show that 5.2 million people in Tigray, or 90 per cent of the region's population, need aid.
Many regional and international powers worry that the spreading conflict in Ethiopia — Africa's second-most populous nation and a diplomatic heavyweight — could further destabilise an already fragile region.
Mr Abiy in November sent troops into Tigray to topple the ruling Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the then-ruling party, accusing the group of staging attacks on army camps.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner declared victory within weeks after government forces took the Tigrayan capital Mekelle, but TPLF leaders remained on the run and fighting continued.
In a reversal of the conflict in late June, pro-TPLF forces re-entered Mekelle. Mr Abiy declared a unilateral ceasefire and the army mostly pulled out of Tigray.
Tigrayan rebels have since pushed into Amhara and Afar.
Ethiopian officials have accused aid workers of favouring and even arming Tigrayan forces, but have offered no evidence to support these claims. In August, Ethiopia suspended the operations of two major international aid groups after accusing them of arming rebels.