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Ethiopia frees some of captive U.N. workers

by Compiled by Democrat-Gazette Staff From Wire Reports | November 19, 2021 at 4:34 a.m.

UNITED NATIONS -- The United Nations announced Thursday that six U.N. staff members detained by the Ethiopian government were released and that all of the more than 70 detained truck drivers waiting to deliver aid to war-torn Tigray have also been freed.

But five U.N. staff members and one dependent remain in custody in the capital Addis Ababa and the U.N. is pressing for their release as well, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

The detentions were the government's latest slap at the United Nations after the recent expulsion of seven U.N. staffers, including several senior officials working in Tigray, as tensions continue over what the U.N. has called a "de facto humanitarian blockade" on the Tigray region.

The arrests of the drivers started Nov. 3 in the city of Semera, the gateway for aid convoys struggling to reach Tigray, according to the U.N., and earlier this week 34 drivers were released.

Dujarric said Thursday that "all of the 70 plus" drivers, contracted by the United Nations and the U.N. World Food Program, have now been freed.

Tigray has not received badly needed aid supplies including food, medicine and fuel since the Ethiopian military began hitting the Tigray capital with airstrikes on Oct. 18, and Dujarric said Thursday that aid convoys are still being blocked. Even before then, just 15% of the needed supply-laden trucks had entered Tigray since mid-July, the U.N. said.

Meanwhile, the United States is warning pilots that planes operating at one of Africa's busiest airports could be "directly or indirectly exposed to ground weapons fire and/or surface-to-air fire" as Ethiopia's war nears the capital, Addis Ababa.

The Federal Aviation Administration advisory issued Wednesday cites the "ongoing clashes" between Ethiopian forces and fighters from the northern Tigray region, which have killed thousands of people in a year of war. The U.S. this week urged its citizens in Ethiopia to "leave now," saying there should be no expectation of an Afghanistan-style evacuation.

Diplomatic efforts to stop the fighting have met resistance, but Kenya's president told visiting U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday that Ethiopia's prime minister in a meeting on Sunday gave the impression he was ready to consider several proposals to ease tensions and reduce violence, a senior State Department official said.

Those include opening humanitarian access to Tigray and restoring government services to the region. Such steps, combined with a ceasefire agreement, could set the stage for more comprehensive peace talks, the U.S. official said.

Efforts by an African Union envoy, former Nigerian President Olesegun Obasanjo, and U.S. envoy Jeffrey Feltman continue. Ethiopia's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Dina Mufti, told reporters that both are in Ethiopia but didn't give details.

The Addis Ababa international airport is the hub for the state-owned Ethiopian Airlines, a symbol of Ethiopia's former status as one of the world's most rapidly growing economies before the war. The airline in recent years became Africa's largest and best-managed carrier, turning Addis Ababa into the gateway to the continent. Addis Ababa is also the continent's diplomatic capital as home of the AU.

The FAA advisory notes no reports of disruptions at Bole International Airport and "no indication of an intent to threaten civil aviation," but it says the risk to approaching and departing planes could increase if the Tigray fighters encircle the capital.

The Tigray fighters "likely possess a variety of anti-aircraft capable weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank weapons, low-caliber anti-aircraft artillery, and man-portable air-defense systems," which could reach up to 25,000 feet above ground level, the FAA advisory says.

Information for this article was contributed by Edith M. Lederer, Cara Anna and Matt Lee of The Associated Press.

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