NAIROBI, Kenya — Ethiopia ordered the expulsion of seven senior United Nations officials on Thursday, two days after the U.N.’s aid chief warned that northern Ethiopia is sliding into famine because the government is blocking aid deliveries to the region.
Among those on the list of those ordered expelled were officials coordinating aid deliveries and sounding the alarm about the humanitarian crisis in Tigray, the northern region that has been at war for nearly a year with the Ethiopian government.
At least five million people in Tigray urgently need help, but just 606 trucks have been allowed to enter the region since July 12, bringing barely one-tenth of the supplies needed to avert a catastrophic famine, U.N. officials said. Aid workers accuse Ethiopian officials of using harassment and obstruction to constrict the flow of aid into a region controlled by Tigrayan rebel forces.
Trucks filled with food, medicine and fuel are stranded in the neighboring Afar region, refused permission to move. On Thursday, Ethiopian officials forced 10 aid workers to get off a U.N. flight into Tigray, saying they lacked the necessary paperwork, said a senior aid official who did not want to be identified to avoid reprisals.
In a statement giving the U.N. officials 72 hours to leave, Ethiopia’s foreign ministry accused them of “meddling in the internal affairs of the country” and declared them “persona non grata.”
The U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said he was “shocked” by the announcement and expressed his “full confidence” in U.N. staffers who deliver lifesaving aid in Ethiopia.
Two weeks ago President Biden threatened to impose sanctions on Ethiopian officials and other belligerents in the conflict in Tigray unless they move toward negotiations and open up humanitarian access to the region.
The expulsion order appeared to be a defiant rebuke to the American threat by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
Stephanie Tremblay, a U.N. spokeswoman in New York who delivered Mr. Guterres’s reaction at the regular daily news briefing, said discussions were underway between Ethiopian and U.N. officials “at various levels” over the expulsion order, which seemed to be an indication that it was not yet final.
Ethiopia already expelled aid workers from two major agencies this summer when it suspended the operations of the Dutch branch of Doctors Without Borders and the Norwegian Refugee Council, accusing them of arming “rebel groups.”
Most of the officials facing the expulsion order on Thursday work for the U.N.’s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The agency’s head, Martin Griffiths, accused Ethiopia of mounting a “de facto blockade” of Tigray during a visit to the country this week.
“This is man-made, this can be remedied by the act of government,” Mr. Griffiths said.
Food, fuel, medicine and cash are running out across Tigray, where the government has cut off internet and phone services, closed banks and blocked fuel supplies. In a briefing published Thursday, the Humanitarian Affairs office said the blockade had led to runaway food inflation, with prices of some staples increasing by 400 percent since June 28.
In interviews, several aid workers in Ethiopia said they feared the expulsions would have a chilling effect on their ability to maneuver in the country and to speak openly. The aid officials declined to be identified to avoid reprisals from the Ethiopian authorities.
Rick Gladstone contributed reporting from New York, and Simon Marks from Nairobi, Kenya.