NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — The United Nations says Ethiopian authorities have arrested and detained some 70 truck drivers contracted to the U.N. and other aid groups in the past week since the government declared a state of emergency amid the country’s escalating war.
Wednesday’s statement said the U.N. is seeking the reasons for the arrests since Nov. 3 in the city of Semera, the gateway for aid convoys struggling to reach the Tigray region under what the U.N. has described as a “de facto humanitarian blockade.” Government spokesman Legesse Tulu did not respond to questions.
The statement came a day after the U.N. said at least 16 local employees had been detained in recent days in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. All are ethnic Tigrayans, who witnesses say have been swept up by the thousands since the state of emergency was declared in response to reports that Tigray forces who have been fighting Ethiopian forces were approaching the capital.
Government spokesman Legesse told The Associated Press the 16 U.N. staffers were detained because of “participation in terror” unrelated to their work, without details. The government says it is detaining people suspected of supporting the Tigray forces.
The new U.N. statement said the drivers detained are of “different ethnicities.” It was not clear whether such a large detention of drivers has occurred earlier in the war.
The arrests are a further challenge to efforts to deliver humanitarian aid to millions of people in the Tigray region, which has not received badly needed aid supplies including food, medicines and fuel since the Ethiopian military began hitting the Tigray capital with airstrikes on Oct. 18.
“It is estimated that 80% of essential medication is no longer available” in the region, the U.N. humanitarian agency said last week. Ethiopia’s government is wary that aid intended for civilians may be diverted to support the Tigray forces, and it has accused humanitarian groups of arming the fighters and of falsely inflating the scale of the crisis, without giving evidence.
The war in Africa’s second-most populous country has killed thousands of people and displaced millions. Urgent diplomatic efforts for an immediate cease-fire and talks have reported a small window of opportunity, but Tigray forces spokesman Getachew Reda in a tweet on Wednesday asserted that “most ‘peace initiatives’ are mainly about saving (Ethiopia’s prime minister) … Efforts that fail to address our conditions and the tendency to conflate humanitarian issues with political ones are doomed to fail!”
The Tigray forces dominated the national government for 27 years before a political falling-out with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner.