The UN Secretary-General tells Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed that he will not accept staff expulsions.

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The United Nations rejects Ethiopia’s decision to expel seven senior United Nations officials as famine looms in the war-torn region of Tigray, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Friday.

Ethiopia declared the officials personae non grata on Thursday and gave them 72 hours to leave, but U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said that doctrine does not apply to world body staff. According to Haq, the officials are still in the country.

In a note to Ethiopia’s mission to the United Nations in New York, seen by Reuters, the U.N. Office of Legal Affairs said it had not received any information to back Ethiopia’s accusation that the officials were meddling in internal affairs.

Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs later on Friday accused the U.N. officials of diverting aid and communication equipment to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), violating security arrangements, failing to demand the return of aid trucks deployed to Tigray, and spreading misinformation.

War broke out 11 months ago between Ethiopia’s federal troops and forces loyal to the TPLF, which controls Tigray. Thousands have died and more than 2 million people have been forced to flee their homes.

Guterres told the U.N. Security Council on Friday – in a letter seen by Reuters – that the United Nations would push Ethiopia “to permit these critical U.N. staff to resume their functions in Ethiopia and grant them the necessary visas.”

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Ethiopia’s mission to the United Nations in New York told Reuters: “We urge the U.N. to expeditiously replace the expelled personnel to allow the continuation of our cooperation in providing humanitarian assistance.”

The mission said Ethiopia would work with U.N. officials to “facilitate the early deployment of the new personnel”.

SECURITY COUNCIL TALKS

People stand in line to receive food donations, at the Tsehaye primary school, which was turned into a temporary shelter for people displaced by conflict, in the town of Shire, Tigray region, Ethiopia, March 15, 2021. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

The United States, Britain, Ireland, Estonia, Norway and France raised the expulsions in a closed-door Security Council meeting on Friday, but diplomats say strong action – such as sanctions – is unlikely as Russia and China have made clear they believe the Tigray conflict is an internal affair for Ethiopia.

“There is a need to seek more information on this incident. We support the U.N. and Ethiopia to resolve this issue through dialogue and support the two sides to continue to cooperate,” a spokesperson for China’s U.N. mission in New York told Reuters.

Some diplomats and officials voiced concerns that the government could be planning further action.

“As a major new military offensive looms, this seems like Ethiopia’s attempt to test if the international community is prepared to respond with more than words to an unfolding famine,” a senior Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.

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Norway’s U.N. Ambassador Mona Juul described Ethiopia’s move to expel U.N. staff as “completely unacceptable”, while Ireland’s U.N. Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason said: “We’re worried it may be a precursor to other activity.”

The United States has condemned the expulsions and warned that it would not hesitate to use unilateral sanctions against those who obstructed humanitarian efforts.

U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths warned on Tuesday that a “de facto” aid blockade had likely forced hundreds of thousands of people in Tigray into famine. Ethiopia has previously denied blocking food aid.

“At least 400,000 people are living in famine-like conditions. Levels of reported child malnutrition are now at the same level as at the onset of the 2011 Somalia famine. To date, the flow of humanitarian supplies to meet these needs remains far below what is required,” Guterres wrote to the Security Council on Friday.

Some 5.2 million people need help in Tigray, the United Nations says, and Guterres said the conflict’s spillover to neighboring Amhara and Afar regions was also fuelling a rise displacement and people in need.

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