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A police officer stands guard during a pro-government rally at Meskel Square in Addis Ababa on Sunday.TIKSA NEGERI/Reuters

Ethiopian authorities have detained at least 16 United Nations staff members in Addis Ababa, sparking new concerns that the government is rounding up thousands of ethnic Tigrayans in its latest crackdown on perceived rebel sympathizers in Ethiopia’s capital city.

While UN officials declined to disclose the ethnicity of the 16 detainees, it was widely reported that they were Tigrayans who were arrested during a wave of police raids that have targeted residents of the capital on the basis of their ethnic identity.

After a joint force of Tigrayan and Oromo rebels advanced to within 325 kilometres of Addis Ababa last week, the government proclaimed a six-month state of emergency, giving its police the power to make arrests without warrants or judicial oversight. It also allowed suspects to be detained for the duration of the state of emergency.

The policies are vague and far-reaching, and have already triggered a series of neighbourhood searches in Addis Ababa in which Tigrayans are being arrested without a court warrant or access to their families, according to a statement this week from Human Rights Watch.

Amnesty International, in a similar warning, said the sweeping nature of the state of emergency is “a blueprint for escalating human rights violations, including arbitrary detention.” The new regulations have put detainees “at heightened risk of torture and other ill-treatment,” it said.

The Globe and Mail reported this week that thousands of Tigrayans have been held in mass detention camps where torture and the threat of execution are common.

‘They just vanished’: Tigrayans disappear for months in secret Ethiopian detention camps

Rebels advance toward Addis Ababa as investigation uncovers more atrocities in Ethiopian war

UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters that the 16 staff members are being “detained in facilities against their will.” The UN has not been given any reason for the detentions, he said.

Ethiopian government spokesman Legesse Tulu told the Associated Press that the UN staff were detained because of “their wrongdoing and their participation in terror,” but did not provide any details.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), said in a statement on Monday that it was concerned about the growing number of detentions in Addis Ababa under the state of emergency. The detentions – including arrests of elderly people and mothers with young children – seem to be targeted on the basis of ethnic identity, the statement said.

From the first day of the state of emergency, people in the Ethiopian capital have been arrested in their homes and offices and in the street, and are now being held at various police stations across the city, the EHRC said.

In Washington, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, Ned Price, said the detentions of Ethiopians on the basis of their ethnicity are “completely unacceptable” if the reports are true.

Tensions have sharply increased in Addis Ababa in recent days as the rebels moved closer to the city. Many countries, including Canada, have begun withdrawing all non-essential diplomatic staff and family members, and are urging their citizens to consider leaving the country while commercial flights are still operating.

The British government became the latest to issue a similar warning. “It is likely to become much more difficult to leave Ethiopia in the coming days,” it told its citizens in an advisory on Tuesday.

Zambia, meanwhile, is the first African country to withdraw diplomats and other personnel from Addis Ababa. “On my orders … we have safely evacuated our fellow citizens from Ethiopia,” Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema tweeted on Tuesday, posting photos showing dozens of Zambians boarding an airplane to leave Ethiopia.

Despite the rising tensions and continuing military conflict, diplomats believe there is still a chance for a negotiated ceasefire. The African Union’s special envoy, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, has travelled to Addis Ababa and the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle, in recent days, seeking a solution to the conflict.

“All these leaders here in Addis Ababa and the north agree individually that the differences opposing them are political and require political solution through dialogue,” he told the UN Security Council on Monday. “This, therefore, constitutes a window of opportunity.”

The UN’s food agency, the World Food Programme, said this week that as many as seven million people across northern Ethiopia are facing acute hunger as a result of the conflict.

The UN’s under-secretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs, Rosemary DiCarlo, told the Security Council that the relief effort in northern Ethiopia continues to be undermined by obstacles preventing the transport of fuel, cash and supplies into the region, including government air strikes on Tigrayan sites.

“No aid trucks have reached Mekelle since Oct. 18 amid continued air strikes,” she said.

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