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The U.N. seeks the release of 16 staffers detained in Ethiopia

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Why are 16 staff members of the United Nations in custody in Ethiopia? The U.N. says the government detained its employees in Addis Ababa. U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric says they have not been given an explanation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEPHANE DUJARRIC: I can't comment on why the government is doing this. What I can only comment on is that we have colleagues that are currently in detention that should not be in detention.

INSKEEP: NPR's East Africa correspondent Eyder Peralta is joining us now. Hey there, Eyder.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are the facts?

PERALTA: So we know that originally, 22 U.N. staffers and an unknown number of their dependents were arrested. And, you know, this is happening amid a huge crackdown in Addis Ababa. Human rights groups say that hundreds of ethnic Tigrayans have been rounded up for seemingly no other reason than their ethnicity. And the AP is reporting that the U.N. staffers who were arrested were Tigrayan. The U.N. would not comment on that.

But this is also not the first time the U.N. is caught in the government's crosshairs. Last month, Ethiopia threw out seven top-ranking U.N. officials. And remember that the U.N. has been focused on getting food aid to a part of the country that they say is on the verge of a catastrophic famine. And all of this has obviously made that even harder.

INSKEEP: I guess we should just remind people when you said ethnic Tigrayans, you're talking about the group that is at the center of this civil conflict with the central government. They are the people who are under siege and who are also advancing toward the capital at the same time.

PERALTA: Yeah, that's right. I mean, look; and I think this tells you a lot about this conflict - right? - which began as a typical power struggle between the old government and the new government. But it has just turned viciously ethnic. Ethiopian troops and Eritrean troops have been accused of pillaging and raping their way through the northern part of the country. The Ethiopian government has been accused of using hunger as a weapon of war against the people of Tigray. And now, as this conflict has moved out of Tigray and into neighboring states, we're hearing accusations that the rebels are doing the same sorts of things against the people of Amhara.

And both sides are framing this as an existential fight. So it's become vicious. And the U.N. and humanitarian groups and mainly civilians are bearing the brunt of this.

INSKEEP: How is the Ethiopian government responding to this news that - this allegation that they've taken 16 U.N. employees into custody?

PERALTA: So look. As you mentioned, the U.N. says that the government hasn't given them an explanation. But the government told us that the U.N. staffers were arrested not because of where they work, but because of, quote, "their wrongdoing and their participation in a terror act." But the government has not given the U.N. or they did not provide us with any evidence for that.

INSKEEP: OK, so we take note of their statement. We'll see if any evidence comes along. What about the wider conflict and the effort to bring it to some kind of a cease-fire? Is mediation going anywhere?

PERALTA: I mean, there's an effort, right? The U.S. and the U.N. and the African Union are trying to mediate a solution. But - and this week, the AU envoy spoke to both sides of this war. But all of this is coming a year into this civil war, and analysts I've spoken to seem to think that it's too little, too late.

INSKEEP: Eyder, thanks so much for your reporting.

PERALTA: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Eyder Peralta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.