Ethiopia lashes out at WHO chief for Tigray war remarks

Ethiopia lashes out at WHO chief for Tigray war remarks
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus - the highest-profile Tigrayan abroad - this week described conditions in Tigray as 'hell' and said the Ethiopian government was preventing medicines and other life-saving aid from reaching locals.
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The government accused WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of supporting the Tigray People's Liberation Front [AFP via Getty]

Ethiopia has asked the UN health agency to investigate its chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus for "harmful misinformation" and "misconduct", accusing him of backing rebels in his native war-torn Tigray region.

Tedros - the highest-profile Tigrayan abroad - this week described conditions in the Ethiopian region as "hell" and said the government was preventing medicines and other life-saving aid from reaching locals.

Addis Ababa said his comments threatened the World Health Organisation's integrity, and called for Tedros to be investigated for "misconduct and violation of his professional and legal responsibility".

"He has been interfering in the internal affairs of Ethiopia, including Ethiopia's relations with the state of Eritrea," the foreign ministry said late Thursday, quoting a letter it sent to WHO.

The government accused Tedros of supporting the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), its adversary in the 14-month war in the country's north, and a listed terror group in Ethiopia.

Thousands have died in the fighting, with the United Nations on Friday saying that at least 108 civilians had been killed in air strikes in Tigray so far this year.

Many more are facing starvation, with the World Food Programme (WFP) warning Friday its operations were "grinding to a halt" in northern Ethiopia because fierce fighting was preventing aid from reaching millions in need.

'Harmful misinformation'

Tedros on Wednesday described restrictions on aid entering rebel-controlled Tigray - which the UN has described as a de facto blockade - as creating "hell" in the war-ravaged region.

It is "so dreadful and unimaginable during this time, the 21st century, when a government is denying its own people for more than a year food and medicine and the rest to survive", Tedros told reporters.

The Ethiopian foreign ministry said Tedros had "spread harmful misinformation and compromised WHO's reputation, independence and credibility which is evident from his social media postings that openly endorse the terror perpetrated by the TPLF against the Ethiopian people".

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The TPLF, in a statement, described the government's comments as "ludicrous" and a "sick joke".

"The criminal Abiy regime, rather than trying to find a solution in good faith, is busy manufacturing fictious narratives to evade accountability for using hunger as a tool of war - a war crime under international laws - by engineering an artificial catastrophe in Tigray." the TPLF said.

Ethiopia's mission to the United Nations also protested against the WHO head's remarks and called for Tedros to recuse himself "from all matters concerning Ethiopia".

"Partisan, politically and personally motivated staff, blindsided from serving their global roles, curtail the most needed work of UN agencies," it said on Twitter on Wednesday.

'Humanitarian disaster'

The WFP on Friday said none of its convoys had reached the Tigrayan capital Mekele since mid-December, and stocks of fortified foods for malnourished children were already exhausted.

"We're now having to choose who goes hungry to prevent another from starving... We're on the edge of a humanitarian disaster," Michael Dunford, WFP's regional director for Eastern Africa, said in a statement.

Addis Ababa on Friday blamed the TPLF for the blockade, accusing the rebels of impeding critical humanitarian corridors into their stronghold of Tigray.

The international community should "hold the TPLF accountable for the crime of starving people in Tigray, under whose name it has been wreaking havoc", the foreign ministry said.

Ethiopian forces and their allies have been fighting the TPLF since November 2020, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray after accusing the rebels of attacking army camps.

It is not the first time that Tedros, who in 2017 became the first African to head WHO, has attracted Ethiopia's ire over his remarks on the war.

At the outset of fighting, Ethiopia's army chief Berhanu Jula accused the 56-year-old of helping the TPLF acquire weapons.

The WHO boss rejected these allegations, insisting he was "on the side of peace".