The shooting came as the UN and aid agencies are continuing to seek access to northern Ethiopia, more than a week after fighting there was declared over on November 28.
Ethiopia has admitted that the country's forces fired on a UN team, claiming they ignored instructions and drove through government checkpoints in the northern region of Tigray.
Ethiopia's security forces shot at and detained United Nations staffers as they tried to reach part of the embattled Tigray region, a senior official said on Tuesday, and he blamed the UN staffers for trying to reach areas where “they were not supposed to go.”
The shooting occurred amid soaring frustration among humanitarians as desperately needed aid is still not freely reaching the Tigray region.
The senior official, Redwan Hussein, told reporters that the UN employees “broke” two checkpoints and were trying to go through a third when they were fired upon.
He said the staffers have since been released.
UN's immediate response
The United Nations is "engaging at the highest level" with Ethiopia's government over "alarming reports" that a UN team was shot at in the country's war-hit Tigray region, UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said on Tuesday.
"These are alarming reports and we are engaging at the highest level with the federal government to express our concern and avoid any such incidents in the future," said Dujarric, adding that Secretary General Antonio Guterres had spoken with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Monday.
Food, medicines and other aid for some 6 million people, some 1 million of them now displaced, are in the balance. Food for the 96,000 Eritrean refugees ran out days ago.
Abiy's office said on Monday it was working with the UN and others to extend humanitarian assistance “with a well-coordinated framework led by the federal government.”
The UN, however, has stressed the importance of a humanitarian approach that is neutral and unfettered.
Even after Abiy declared victory on November 28 in what he called a “law enforcement operation” against a Tigray government he now considers illegitimate, fighting has continued in parts of the region, further complicating access for aid.
Concerns over humanitarian assistance
Impatience has risen as humanitarian officials say they still don’t have access to Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region more than a week after Ethiopia’s government and the United Nations signed a deal to allow in desperately needed food and other aid.
“Regaining access to refugees and others in need is urgent and critical for UNHCR and humanitarian organisations,” the head of the UN refugee agency, Filippo Grandi, tweeted on Tuesday, amid growing fears about nearly 100,000 refugees from Eritrea trapped in the conflict.
The UN announced the deal with Ethiopia’s government last Wednesday, saying it was signed on November 29. The agreement allows access only to areas under Ethiopian government control but even those areas are apparently not yet open.
The fighting in the region erupted November 4 between Ethiopia’s government and the government of the Tigray region following months of rising tensions. Since then, aid-laden trucks have waited at the borders of Tigray, a region of 6 million people, even as warnings have become increasingly dire about the lack of food, fuel, clean water, cash and other necessities.
“Full access for humanitarian actors must be guaranteed,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell tweeted on Tuesday.
On #Ethiopia: hostilities and ethnic-targeted violence must stop. Civilians and refugees must be protected. Full access for humanitarian actors must be guaranteed. The only solution is to go back to a peaceful and sustainable settlement of the conflict. #AUEU pic.twitter.com/zBWKiEwxDx— Josep Borrell Fontelles (@JosepBorrellF) December 8, 2020
Yesterday’s statement by @PMEthiopia says that protection and assistance will be given to those impacted by military action in #Tigray including Eritrean refugees.— Filippo Grandi (@FilippoGrandi) December 8, 2020
Regaining access to refugees and others in need is urgent and critical for UNHCR and humanitarian organizations.
Eritrean soldiers in region
The United States believes Eritrean soldiers have crossed into Ethiopia to help Abiy's government battle the rebellious northern force, despite denials from both nations, a US government source and five regional diplomats said.
Abiy and Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki signed a peace pact ending two decades of hostilities in 2018 and now regard the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) as a mutual foe.
The US assessment creates a potential policy predicament as Washington views Ethiopia as a major ally in the volatile Horn of Africa but accuses Eritrea of severe rights abuses.
Evidence of Eritrean involvement cited in the US view of the month-long war includes satellite images, intercepted communications and anecdotal reports from the Tigray region, five diplomats and a security source all briefed on the US assessment told Reuters.
"There doesn't appear to be a doubt anymore. It's being discussed by US officials on calls, that the Eritreans are in Tigray, but they aren't saying it publicly," the US government source, who has been privy to the internal calls, told Reuters.
Contacted by Reuters on Saturday, Eritrea's Foreign Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed said, "We are not involved. It's propaganda."
Ethiopia has denied its old foe entered the conflict, though Abiy did say last week some government troops retreated into Eritrea early in the conflict and were given assistance.
Thousands of people are thought to have been killed in the power struggle between the Tigray People's Liberation Front, which dominated Ethiopia's government and military for more than a quarter-century, and the government of Abiy, who sidelined the TPLF soon after taking power in 2018 and introduced dramatic political reforms that won him the Nobel Peace Prize.