A United Nations team visiting Ethiopia’s rebellious Tigray region was shot at after breaking through two checkpoints, the government says, proclaiming that it did not need a “baby-sitter” for relief operations in the war-hit north.
The UN security team was seeking access to the Shimelba camp for Eritrean refugees when they were fired at on Sunday.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s federal army has been battling the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the region since November 4, with thousands feared dead.
Redwan Hussein, spokesman for the Ethiopian government’s task force for Tigray, told reporters that the UN team broke two checkpoints driving hastily to an unauthorised area.
“When they were about to break the third one they were shot at and detained,” he said.
A UN spokesman in Nairobi did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Two diplomatic sources told Reuters the UN team encountered uniformed Eritrean troops at the camp, though both Ethiopia and Eritrea have denied any incursion over the border by President Isaias Afwerki’s military.
The war in Tigray has driven nearly 50,000 refugees into neighbouring Sudan.
The army has captured the regional capital Mekelle and declared victory but TPLF leaders say they are fighting back on various fronts around the highland city.
“There are a few remnants of the militia or special forces not yet controlled … kind of hooligans, outlaws,” Redwan said.
“This is police work, not a military operation.”
Most communications in Tigray are down and access to the area is severely restricted, making it hard to verify either side’s statements.
It was not immediately possible to reach the TPLF for comment on the latest government statements.
With reports of continued fighting in Tigray, Redwan acknowledged there was sporadic shooting in parts but added that was not uncommon for the area.
The United Nations and aid agencies are pressing for safe access to Tigray, which is home to more than 5 million people and where 600,000 relied on food aid even before the conflict.
“The agreement we entered with the UN was in the belief that the UN would co-ordinate with us but the government would call the shots,” Redwan said, emphasising that Ethiopia was capable of helping its own people
He also said the government would investigate any reports of atrocities or mass killings.
“We will allow independent investigation when we feel we have failed… for anyone to assume they can come and do the things we cannot do is belittling the government,” he said.
“Ethiopia is being run by a strong functional government that knows how to govern a nation. It doesn’t need a babysitter.”