ADDIS ABABA – The United Nations said Wednesday that Ethiopia had detained 72 drivers working for the World Food Programme (WFP) in a northern city along the only functional 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 one day after the UN said 22 Ethiopian staff had been detained in the capital Addis Ababa following government raids that lawyers and rights groups say target ethnic Tigrayans.
Six of those employees were freed while the remaining 16 were in custody Tuesday night, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters at the world body’s New York headquarters.
Officials say such raids target supporters of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) rebel group, which has been locked in a gruesome war with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government for the past year.
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.
Abiy sent troops into Tigray last November to topple the TPLF, a move he said came in response to rebel attacks on army camps.
Though the 2019 Nobel Peace laureate vowed a swift victory, 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.
Only 15 percent of necessary aid has been able to cross from Semera into Tigray since mid-July, with hundreds of thousands of people living in famine-like conditions, according to UN estimates.
Last week, the UN said no aid trucks had entered northern Ethiopia since October 18.
Movement of aid workers in and out of the region by road has been barred since October 28.