The United Nations said Tuesday it is “engaging at the highest level” with Ethiopia’s government, following reports that a UN team was shot at and briefly detained while attempting to access a refugee camp over the weekend in the Tigray region.
Redwan Hussein, spokesman for the Ethiopian government’s task force in Tigray, told reporters that the UN staffers “broke” two checkpoints and were attempting to pass a third when they were fired upon and detained. No injuries were reported and the staffers have been released, he added.
The incident occurred following last week’s deal between the UN and Ethiopia’s government allowing humanitarian access to Tigray. Thousands have been killed since fighting broke out in the region in early November between separatists and government forces. The UN estimates up to 950,000 people have been displaced.
Humanitarian access denied
However, access to the region remains restricted, and humanitarian aid groups say they aren’t being allowed to deliver essential goods like food and medicine.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Tuesday that there were four people in the UN team who were doing an assessment of roads in the area for aid deliveries, and were seeking access to Shimelba camp for Eritrean refugees.
However, Ethiopian task force spokesman Hussein said that the aid workers had been instructed to avoid the area and instead “indulged themselves” in an “adventurous expedition.”
Ethiopia doesn’t ‘need a babysitter’
Ethiopia’s government has made clear that it wants to manage the flow of humanitarian aid itself.
Hussein said the aid agreement was based on the “belief that the UN would collaborate” with the Ethiopian government, which would in turn “call the shots.”
“We coordinate, we lead, but we need assistance and a partner,” he said, adding that partners are not allowed to “move alone.”
“There is no such thing as unfettered access in every corner of Ethiopia,” he said, while emphasizing that the government takes it upon itself to investigate humanitarian violations. “Ethiopia is being run by a strong functional government,” Hussein said. “It doesn’t need a babysitter.”
The UN, however, seeks neutral and open access to hotspots, in accordance with international aid principles.
“The situation on the ground is complicated” at the local level, UN spokesman Dujarric said, adding discussions with the government are ongoing to “try to get where we want to be.”