Ethiopia says it would expel seven senior UN officials for interfering with its affairs, flaming up worries over the humanitarian response in the war-torn and famine-threatened Tigray region.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he was shocked by the decision, expressing full confidence in his staff in Ethiopia.
He said the UN was engaging with the government in the full expectation that the officials would be allowed to return.
According to diplomats, an emergency UN Security Council meeting will be held behind closed doors on Friday to discuss the matter.
The White House condemned the ejections of the UN staffers in the strongest terms possible with Press Secretary Jen Psaki terming it unprecedented action to expel the leadership of all of the United Nations organisations involved in ongoing humanitarian operations.
The expulsions, announced by the foreign ministry, came as Africa’s second-most populous country held elections for dozens of federal parliamentary seats, the final round of voting before Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed forms a new government next week.
The seven UN officials, including the local heads of the UN children’s agency UNICEF and its humanitarian coordination office, have been declared “persona non grata” for “meddling in the internal affairs of the country”, the Ministry said in a statement published on its Facebook page.
According to the letters addressed to each of the seven individuals listed below, all of them must leave the territory of Ethiopia within the next 72 hours.
Ethiopia’s northernmost Tigray region has been marred with conflict since November, when Abiy sent troops to topple the regional ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a move he said came in response to TPLF attacks on army camps.
Fighting ground on for months before Tigrayan rebels retook the regional capital Mekele and government forces largely withdrew from the region.
Since then, the TPLF has launched offensives into neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions, while Tigray itself is receiving only about 10 percent of the aid it needs.
In July, the UN warned that 400,000 people across Tigray had “crossed the threshold into ‘famine’.
The situation has since deteriorated as a de-facto blockade prevents most aid from getting in.
Federal officials blame the TPLF for obstructing deliveries, but a US State Department spokesperson last week told AFP that access to essential supplies and services was being denied by the Ethiopian government and that there were indications of a ‘siege’.
Government officials offered no further explanation for the expulsions, although several of the targets have spoken out about dire conditions in Tigray.