The United Nations has said Ethiopian authorities detained 72 drivers working for the World Food Programme (WFP) in the country’s conflict-torn north.
The development on Wednesday came a day after the UN reported the arrests of 22 of its employees in the capital, Addis Ababa, as international alarm grows over reported widespread arrests of ethnic Tigrayans amid an escalation in the fighting.
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A UN spokesperson said the latest detentions had occurred in the capital of Afar province, on the only functional road leading into the Tigray region, where hundreds of thousands of people live in famine-like conditions, according to the world body.
“We confirm that 72 outsourced drivers contracted by WFP have been detained in Semera. We are liaising with the Government of Ethiopia to understand the reasons behind their detention,” the spokesperson said.
“We are advocating with the government to ensure their safety and the full protection of their legal and human rights.”
The government last week announced a six-month nationwide emergency amid rising fears that Tigrayan fighters and allied Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) rebels could advance on the capital.
Lawyers say arbitrary detentions of ethnic Tigrayans have surged since then, with the new measures allowing the authorities to hold anyone suspected of supporting “terrorist groups” without a warrant. Law enforcement officials describe such detentions as part of legitimate operations against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which has been designated a “terrorist” group by the government.
Speaking to Al Jazeera on Wednesday, the head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said he was concerned about the mass arrests of ethnic Tigrayans.
“There appears to be ethnic element to these arrests, which worries us, in a sense that largely ethnic Tigrayans have been targeted for house searches and arrests,” Daniel Bekele said, adding that the state-appointed commission had been monitoring the detentions of “hundreds” of people.
“I do understand that the state of emergency gives powers to police to arrest people on grounds of reasonable suspicion but we are concerned about the risk of the state emergency and its directives being applied in a wrong way,” he added.
But Ethiopia’s government denied targeting Tigrayans based on their ethnicity.
“There is no systematic arrest … because of your profile,” Redwan Hussein, state minister for foreign affairs, told Al Jazeera. “Since the state of emergency actually set up by the government, people are vigilant so citizens are watching out in their neighbourhoods and each other for possible attacks. So people might inform the police if they see something unusual,” he said.
“If the police do not have adequate reasons to suspect, then the people would be released.”
Asked about the detentions of UN personnel, Hussein said they were not “arrested just because they work for any UN institution”.
“If they haven’t done anything they will be released, but it’s not because they are working for humanitarian activities,” he added.
On Tuesday, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that 22 Ethiopian staff had been detained in Addis Ababa. Six were freed while the remaining 16 – all ethnic Tigrayans – were in custody on Tuesday night, he added, noting that “no explanation” was given about the detentions.
Information on the ethnicity of the drivers detained in Semera was not immediately available, though the UN has in the past hired ethnic Tigrayans to transport food and other aid into Tigray.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray last November to topple the TPLF, a move he said came in response to attacks on army federal camps.
Though the 2019 Nobel Peace laureate promised a swift victory, by late June the Tigrayan forces had retaken most of the region including its capital Mekelle.
Since then Tigray has been under what the UN describes as a de-facto humanitarian blockade.
Only 15 percent of necessary aid has been able to cross from Semera into Tigray since mid-July, according to the UN.
Foreign envoys are scrambling to end the war and mitigate further suffering, hoping that an African Union-led push can bring about a cessation of hostilities before a new surge in fighting.
The US said this week there was a “small window” to reach a deal, though it is far from clear how major divisions will be bridged.
TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda appeared to dismiss peace initiatives on Wednesday, saying on Twitter that they seemed “mainly about saving Abiy”.
Efforts that fail to address our conditions & the tendency to conflate humanitarian issues with political ones are doomed to fail,” he added.
The fighting has extracted a huge humanitarian toll, with rights groups on Wednesday issuing new reports on sexual violence in the war.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the government’s “effective siege” of Tigray – where Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers are accused of mass rapes – was preventing survivors from getting healthcare and other critical services.
Amnesty International said Tigrayan rebels had raped, robbed and beaten up women during an attack on a town in Amhara region, south of Tigray.