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Why is Ethiopia detaining UN aid workers?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We turn now to Ethiopia, where civil war has pushed hundreds of thousands of people to the verge of famine in the country's north. That estimation is from the United Nations. And U.N. staff, many of them locally hired, are distributing food and other humanitarian relief. This week, though, brought news that 16 U.N. staffers have been detained, along with dozens of drivers meant to deliver that aid. The U.N. is calling for their release. And here to tell us more, Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson for the U.N. secretary general. He joins us from U.N. headquarters in New York. Welcome.

STEPHANE DUJARRIC: Thank you. Thank you for having me, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Any word from your staff in Ethiopia as to their condition, where they're being held and how they're being treated?

DUJARRIC: We know that we have about nine staff members that are continuing to be held in detention, mostly in various police facilities around...

KELLY: So some have been released.

DUJARRIC: Some have been released over the last few days. We're desperate to get all of them released. Frankly, we've not got any real explanation as to why they're being detained. Also, we have about 70 truck drivers that the U.N. and other humanitarian organizations have hired that have been detained, and these drivers are meant to drive humanitarian aid into Tigray. They've also been detained.

KELLY: May I ask, are these staffers Tigrayan, Tigray being the region in the north that you mentioned that's held by rebels that are fighting the government?

DUJARRIC: Frankly, we don't keep that data on our staff, right? For us, they are Ethiopians first and foremost who work for the United Nations.

KELLY: So you honestly don't know.

DUJARRIC: We have a responsibility to ensure that our staff is safe. We have seen very disturbing reports in various parts of the country, notably in Addis Ababa, of people being detained, likely based on their ethnicity. And that is extremely worrying.

KELLY: This is the latest development in tensions that have been ongoing between the U.N. and the Ethiopian government. I know earlier this fall, Ethiopia threw out seven U.N. officials. Is there any possibility that the U.N. would have to reconsider your humanitarian efforts there and pull out?

DUJARRIC: We're staying, and we're delivering. Despite this very heightened tension, we have about 200 staff members who are in Mekelle, which is in Tigray, the epicenter of the humanitarian crisis. They're doing their best despite very, very low food rations, a lack of fuel and a lack of cash. I would add that we are in dialogue with the government. And I think we all want the same thing, which is to help those Ethiopians who so desperately need food, who need protection and who need help.

KELLY: Looking ahead, soldiers from the northern Tigray region - and by the way, I'm saying Tigray. I hear you're saying Tigray. These are both acceptable pronunciations. Yeah. Soldiers from there are marching toward the capital. If the capital falls, if the government falls, what would that mean on a humanitarian level?

DUJARRIC: Unimaginable suffering, frankly. We're very concerned about these reports of armed soldiers not too far from the capital. That's why, since the beginning of this crisis almost more than a year ago, the secretary general has been engaging with the government to try to get them and other parties to engage in a real political dialogue to settle these differences. The violence that we're seeing is not only leading to a humanitarian problem in terms of access to food and medicine. It has the potential to be very destabilizing to the whole region.

KELLY: Stephane Dujarric. He's spokesperson for the U.N. Secretary General. We reached him at U.N. headquarters in New York. Thank you.

DUJARRIC: Thank you very much, Mary Louise. Thank you for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF REKI'S "SANCTUM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.