Ethiopia said Thursday it is kicking out seven United Nations officials whom it accused of “meddling” in the country’s internal affairs, as pressure grows on the Ethiopian government over its deadly blockade of the Tigray region.

The expulsions are the government’s most dramatic move yet to restrict humanitarian access to the region of six million people after nearly a year of war. The UN has become increasingly outspoken as the flow of medical supplies, food and fuel has been brought to a near-halt.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “shocked” by the announcement and expressed “full confidence” in UN staff, saying they are guided by impartiality and neutrality.

In a statement, Guterres said the UN is engaging with Ethiopia’s government “in the expectation that the concerned UN staff will be allowed to continue their important work.”

Ethiopia’s government has accused humanitarian workers of supporting the Tigray forces who have been fighting its soldiers and allied forces since November. Aid workers have denied it.

Thousands of people have died in the conflict marked by gang rapes, mass expulsions and the destruction of health centres, with witnesses often blaming Ethiopian soldiers and those of neighbouring Eritrea.

Worst hunger crisis in a decade

The UN’s humanitarian chief, Martin Griffiths, this week told The Associated Press that the crisis in Ethiopia is a “stain on our conscience” as children and others starve to death in Tigray under what the UN calls a de facto government blockade. Just 10 per cent of needed humanitarian supplies have been reaching Tigray in recent weeks, he said.

The remarks represented one of the most sharply worded criticisms so far of the world’s worst hunger crisis in a decade. Memories of the 1980s famine in Ethiopia, which killed around one million people and produced images that shocked the world, are vivid in his mind, Griffiths said, “and we fervently hope (this) is not happening at present.”

The AP, citing witness accounts and internal documents, last week reported the first starvation deaths since Ethiopia’s government imposed the blockade in June in an attempt to keep support from reaching Tigray forces.

A statement from Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry said the seven UN officials must leave the country within 72 hours. Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Dina Mufti didn’t immediately respond to a request for details of their alleged interference.

A woman carries an infant as she queues in line for food at the Tsehaye primary school, which was turned into a temporary shelter for people displaced by conflict, in the town of Shire in Ethiopia’s Tigray region in March. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

The people expelled include five with the UN humanitarian agency, including deputy co-ordinator Grant Leaity, one from the UN human rights office and the one UNICEF representative in the country, Adele Khodr. A spokesperson for the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs and some of the individuals expelled didn’t immediately comment.

Findings from a joint investigation into the war by the UN human rights office and the government-created Ethiopian Human Rights Commission — a rare setup that has drawn concern and criticism — are scheduled for release on Nov. 1. It wasn’t immediately clear if the probe will be affected by the expulsion of a UN member of the joint team, Sonny Onyegbula.

Aid groups accused of spreading ‘misinformation’

Earlier, Ethiopia’s government suspended the operations of two major international aid groups — Doctors Without Borders and the Norwegian Refugee Council — accusing them of spreading “misinformation” about the war.

The government is so wary that humanitarian workers boarding rare flights to Tigray have been told they couldn’t bring such items as can openers, multivitamins and medicine, even personal ones, as well as the means to document the crisis, including hard drives and flash drives.

Griffiths told the AP he too was searched, with authorities examining everything in his bag and questioning why he was carrying earphones.

For months, humanitarian workers have been increasingly hesitant to speak openly about the government’s blockade of Tigray for fear of losing access to the region. But the lack of fuel and other supplies has left many without the means to help as some people starve.

“They’ve got their fists around our throats with white knuckles strangling us,” one humanitarian worker told the AP this week on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. “They just let us gasp from time to time so we don’t die.”

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