Ethiopia expelled seven senior U.N. officials, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Thursday.
This comes two days after the world body’s aid chief warned the government that a blockade of aid had likely forced hundreds of thousands of people in the northern region of Tigray into famine.
The seven people expelled include the country heads of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Five of the seven people work for OCHA, while a sixth works for UNICEF and the seventh works for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The seven have 72 hours to leave, the ministry said in a statement, accusing them of “meddling” in internal affairs.
In November, conflict erupted between federal forces and those aligned with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the political party that controls the region.
Tigrayan forces retook most of the region at the end of June, and then pushed into the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara, forcing hundreds of thousands of people there to flee their homes.
International criticism has been increase because of conditions in Tigray and all parties fighting in northern Ethiopia face the possibility of sanctions from the U.S. government.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that the United States condemns the expulsions.
“We’re deeply concerned that this action continues a pattern by the Ethiopian government of obstructing the delivery of food, medicine and other life-saving supplies to those most in need,” she said.
“We must see meaningful steps within weeks to initiate discussions to achieve a negotiated ceasefire, allow unhindered humanitarian access and ensure respect for human rights. Absent significant progress, we’ll take action – and we have the methods to do that,” Psaki added.
A statement from U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he was “shocked” by the expulsions and added: “We are now engaging with the Government of Ethiopia in the expectation that the concerned UN staff will be allowed to continue their important work.”
On Tuesday, U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths, the head of OCHA, said a nearly three-month-long “de-facto blockade” of Tigray’s borders has restricted aid deliveries to 10% of what is required.
“This is man-made, this can be remedied by the act of government,” Griffiths said, noting nearly a quarter of the children in Tigray are malnourished.
Ethiopian authorities previously accused aid workers of favouring and even arming Tigrayan forces, with no supporting evidence to support their accusations.
So far, 23 aid workers have been killed in Tigray.