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Ethiopia ordered the expulsion of seven senior United Nations officials on Sept. 30, 2021, two days after the UN’s aid chief warned that northern Ethiopia is sliding into famine because the government is blocking aid deliveries to the region.FINBARR O'REILLY/The New York Times News Service

Ethiopia has ordered the expulsion of seven of the highest-ranking United Nations officials in the country, just days after the UN’s humanitarian chief warned that a blockade of the war-ravaged Tigray region was causing widening starvation.

The Ethiopian government announced on Thursday that the seven UN humanitarian and human rights officials were being declared “persona non grata” and required to leave Ethiopia within 72 hours for “meddling in the internal affairs of the country.”

The expulsions have sparked strong criticism from the UN, the United States, the European Union and independent-aid agencies. The move deepens the rift between Ethiopia and Western governments, while increasing the likelihood that the United States will fulfill its threat to impose sanctions on Ethiopian leaders.

Hundreds of thousands of people are already starving to death in Tigray, according to widespread reports from the region. Yet the unofficial blockade by the government has prevented an estimated 90 per cent of aid supplies from reaching the region.

The warnings from UN agencies in recent days are a sign of the growing fear of a massive famine in Tigray, potentially rivalling the famine that killed a million people in Ethiopia in the 1980s. But the government has responded by accusing the aid agencies of supporting the Tigrayan rebels. It ordered two other relief agencies to shut their doors in July, while also expelling a number of journalists and political analysts.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was shocked by the latest expulsions, adding he is working to try to reverse the decision.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the United States strongly condemned the “unprecedented” expulsions and would not hesitate to impose sanctions.

“We are deeply concerned that this action continues a pattern by the Ethiopian government of obstructing the delivery of food, medicine and other lifesaving supplies to those most in need,” she said.

“We agree with UN leaders – this is a stain on our collective conscience, and it must stop.”

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said on Twitter that the Ethiopian government moved to expel the UN officials “rather than address such matters as the atrocities and humanitarian-aid blockade that are plaguing the people of Tigray.”

Kjetil Tronvoll, a Norwegian professor and analyst of conflict in Ethiopia, said the expulsions are clear evidence that the Ethiopian government has a “conscious political strategy” of starving Tigrayans to death.

Among those expelled are five senior officials in the UN Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, a top official of the UN human rights office and the senior representative of UNICEF, the UN children’s agency.

Ethiopia had previously ordered a suspension of operations by the Norwegian Refugee Committee and the Dutch branch of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).

Thousands of people have been killed in the fighting between government forces and Tigrayan rebels that began in November, 2020. Starvation deaths are now also being reported in the region.

A day before the latest expulsions, the UN humanitarian office reported that the delivery of humanitarian supplies to Tigray “remains heavily constrained” by the unofficial blockade. Relief agencies have “a significantly reduced capacity due to the depletion of stocks and resources,” it said in a briefing Wednesday.

Of the six million people in Tigray, an estimated 5.2 million need food aid to survive. But despite the urgent need, “there is still a denial of access into Tigray for trucks with fuel and medical supplies,” the UN statement said.

“Commercial supplies have been blocked since June 28, causing severe shortages of essential commodities and a sharp rise in prices. The price of cooking oil has increased by 400 per cent, salt by 300 per cent, rice by 100 per cent and teff [a staple grain] by 90 per cent.”

To prevent starvation, Tigray needs 100 daily truckloads of humanitarian supplies. But since July 12, it has received an average of only about eight trucks per day, according to statistics from the UN humanitarian office.

Relief agencies have reported that some trucks are blocked from entering Tigray because they are carrying seeds, medicine, solar panels and generators. Fuel tankers have been blocked for two months. It is unclear why Ethiopian authorities are blocking these supplies.

Many independent truckers who drove supplies into Tigray are not returning for further trips, partly because of the severe fuel shortage and because of a fear of harassment, looting and violent attacks along the route by Ethiopian security forces and armed civilians.

UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said the malnutrition rate in Tigray has now climbed above 22 per cent – similar to the rate in Somalia in 2011 at the beginning of a famine that killed more than a quarter-million people. Yet only 10 per cent of needed aid supplies are reaching Tigray, he told news agencies this week.

“People have been eating roots and flowers and plants,” he told the Associated Press. “The lack of food will mean that people will start to die.”

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