Ethiopia rounds up high-profile Tigrayans, U.N. staff

NAIROBI (Reuters) — Ethiopian authorities have rounded up high-profile Tigrayans — from a bank CEO to priests — as well as United Nations staff in a mass crackdown on suspected supporters of rebellious northern forces, according to people linked to the detainees.

Police denied targeting the Tigrayan ethnic group, saying those arrested were believed to have links to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which has fought central government for a year.

The war has killed thousands, forced more than two million people from their homes, sucked in troops from neighboring Eritrea and left hundreds of thousands in famine. Fighting has spread into neighboring Afar and Amhara regions, threatening the stability of Ethiopia and the wider Horn of Africa.

The United Nations said Tuesday at least 16 Ethiopian staff and dependents were detained but has not specified their ethnicity. On Wednesday, it said nine were still in custody.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said the arrests of Tigrayans — the latest in repeated waves documented by Reuters — were at least in the hundreds, including elderly people and mothers with children.

The detentions were “out of control,” one senior Ethiopian official told Reuters. He asked for anonymity for fear of retribution.

On Tuesday, police detained Daniel Tekeste, the Tigrayan CEO of Lion Bank along with five other staff, a bank employee told Reuters, adding they were released later that night.

A branch manager at another private bank told Reuters a policeman visited his office in the capital on Tuesday and asked if any Tigrayans worked there. The manager said he told the officer he did not have that information, and he left.

Three high-level members of the former federally-appointed Tigray administration were detained last week but later released, one said, adding that many lower- and middle-ranking regional Tigrayan government officials were still detained.

Abraha Desta, a former cabinet-level member of the Tigrayan administration who had been a prominent critic of the TPLF, was arrested in October after publicly denouncing arrests of Tigrayans.

A Tigrayan member of the ruling Prosperity Party was called to a meeting on Monday in the Kirkos district of the capital and then arrested, his friend told Reuters.

A list compiled by an imprisoned priest and passed to a family member said 37 priests and religious workers had been arrested from four churches in the capital. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Tadele Gebremedhin, a Tigrayan lawyer handling the cases of detained journalists and senior TPLF officials, was arrested at his home on Nov. 4, said a colleague. He remains in prison.

However, most of the arrests reported to Reuters were not high-profile citizens. A resident of Addis Ababa said three Tigrayan friends — a bartender and two real estate brokers — were arrested last week.

Uniformed police and men in plainclothes arrested the bartender at Aarabon Cafe, the man said, while police arrested the brokers at night at their homes.

A U.N. spokesperson said that as well as the 16 staff and dependents, 72 drivers contracted by the U.N.’s World Food Program were also arrested in Semera, the capital city of Afar region.

The United States urged an end to military options.

“There is an opportunity, I hope, for everyone to pull back, to sit down, to get a halt to what’s happening on the ground, and ultimately, to produce a ceasefire, to have access for humanitarian assistance and over time to negotiate a more durable political resolution,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken Blinken told reporter