Ethiopia to expel senior UN staff following criticism of Tigray aid blockade

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Ethiopia said Thursday it would expel seven senior UN officials for "meddling" in its affairs, a move that came after aid workers sounded the alarm on humanitarian access to conflict-torn Tigray.

The foreign ministry said it had "declared a 'persona non grata' for seven individuals who are working for various international NGOs in Ethiopia for meddling in the internal affairs of the country."

"According to the letters addressed to each of the 7 individuals listed below, all of them must leave the territory of Ethiopia within the next 72 hours," it said on its Facebook page.

The statement named seven officials working for various UN agencies.

The White House condemned the move "in the strongest possible terms" with Press Secretary Jen Psaki calling it "unprecedented action to expel the leadership of all of the United Nations organizations involved in ongoing humanitarian operations".

Ethiopia's northern-most region of Tigray has been mired in conflict since November.

The United Nations has previously estimated that 400,000 people face famine-like conditions there, and fears are growing of deaths from starvation. In its latest report, published late on Thursday, it warned of "unprecedented" malnutrition among pregnant and lactating women in Tigray.

"Of the more than 15,000 pregnant and lactating women screened during the reporting period, more than 12,000 women, or about 79 per cent, were diagnosed with acute malnutrition," the report said.

The UN has said the region remains under a de-facto blockade and warned of a "looming catastrophe" as fighting between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's forces and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) has spread to neighbouring areas.

The UN's acting humanitarian coordinator for Ethiopia, Grant Leaity – one of the officials facing expulson – warned this month that stocks of relief aid, cash and fuel were "running very low or are completely depleted" and food stocks had run out in late August.

The Ethiopian authorities and the TPLF have accused each other of obstructing aid convoys trying to reach Tigray.

As the war has expanded, claiming thousands of lives, the humanitarian crisis has only deepened.

Earlier this month, doctors told AFP that Tigray was entering a new phase of fatalities driven by the kind of widespread starvation that turned Ethiopia into a byword for famine in the 1980s.

Abiy sent in troops to topple the TPLF, then the regional ruling party, in November, a move he said came in response to the group's attacks on army camps.

The 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner promised a swift victory, but the TPLF recaptured much of Tigray including its capital Mekele in June, and government forces largely withdrew.

Abiy then announced a humanitarian ceasefire, yet very little aid has gone in – less than 10 percent of needed supplies over the past month, according to the United States.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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