The United Nations said Wednesday that Ethiopia had detained 72 drivers working for the World Food Programme (WFP) in a northern city along a road leading into the famine-threatened Tigray region.
“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,” a UN spokesperson said.
“We are advocating with the government to ensure their safety and the full protection of their legal and human rights,” the spokesperson added.
News of the detained drivers comes a day after the UN said 22 of its staff who are said to be Ethiopian nationals, had been detained in the capital Addis Ababa following government raids that rights groups say are targeting ethnic Tigrayans. UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric on Tuesday said six of the UN employees have been freed, while the remaining 16 are still in custody.
Officials say such raids target supporters of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) rebel group, which has been locked in a relentless war with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government forces for the past one year.
Information on the ethnicity of the drivers detained in Semer, a capital city of the Afar Region of the country, was not immediately available, though the UN has in the past been said to hire ethnic Tigrayans to transport food and other aid into Tigray.
Abiy sent troops into Tigray region last November to topple the TPLF, a move he said came in response to rebel attacks on army camps; He vowed a swift victory, but by late June the TPLF had regrouped and retaken most of the region including its capital Mekele. Since then Tigray has been under what the UN describes as a de facto humanitarian blockade.
The UN estimates that only 15 percent of necessary aid has been able to cross from Semera into Tigray since mid-July this year, with hundreds of thousands of people said to be living in famine-like conditions. Movement of aid workers in and out of the region by road has been barred since October 28.