Foreign citizens caught up in crackdown on Tigrayans in Ethiopia

American and British citizens have been swept up in Ethiopia’s mass detentions of ethnic Tigrayans under a new state of emergency in the country’s escalating war.

Thousands of Tigrayans in the capital, Addis Ababa, and across Africa’s second most populous country have already been detained amid fears of many more such detentions as authorities ordered landlords to register tenants’ identities with police. Men armed with sticks were seen on some streets as volunteer groups sought out Tigrayans to report them.

Ethiopia’s government says it is detaining people suspected of supporting the forces from the Tigray region who are approaching Addis Ababa after a year-long war with Ethiopian forces that was triggered by a political falling-out. But human rights groups, lawyers, relatives and the government-created Ethiopian human rights commission say detentions, including of children and elderly people, appear to be on the basis of ethnicity.

Meron Kiros, the daughter of a British national, told the Associated Press her 55-year-old father, Kiros Amdemariam Gebreab, had lived in the UK for more than a quarter of a century and was visiting Ethiopia to work on his PhD studies when he was detained at his home in the capital on 1 November.

“My father has no political involvement in what has been happening,” she said, attributing his arrest to “purely for being a Tigrayan human being”. She said the family had not been allowed any communication with him, which she described as heartbreaking.

The British government said it had raised his case with Ethiopian authorities. Britain believes a very small number of UK nationals have been detained.

At least two US citizens were among the Tigrayans detained. A hotelier and his son were detained at their home on 2 November, the evening the state of emergency was imposed. Police officers accused them of supporting the Tigray forces, another of the hotelier’s children told AP. The father, in his late 70s, was released after three days but the son remains in custody. He has not been charged.

“My brother moved back here because he wanted to invest in Ethiopia and after a life here after living in the US,” the relative said, speaking like many on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

The US embassy did not immediately respond to questions.

The overwhelming majority of Tigrayans detained have been local, some of them high-profile. On Monday morning, the chief executive of Lion Bank was detained along with seven of his colleagues and a customer, a lawyer said. They were held at a police station before being released in late evening, the lawyer said.

An Ethiopian Orthodox church official in Addis Ababa confirmed this week that dozens of priests, monks, deacons and others had been detained because of their ethnicity, including an assistant to the church’s patriarch.

A civil servant for the Addis Ababa city administration said two friends were arrested while having lunch at a cafe on 5 November after plainclothes police officers overheard them speaking Tigrinya. He has not heard from them since. “So far, I have been lucky,” the civil servant said, but he worried it was only a matter of time before he was arrested too.

The federal police spokesperson Jeylan Abdi said he did not know the number of people detained since the state of emergency was declared last week. He said the detainees were held in various police stations and the total had not been tallied.

He dismissed as “propaganda” allegations that detentions were ethnically motivated and said searches found weapons in the detainees’ possession, including assault rifles and heavy machine guns, as well as military uniforms.

Thousands of people have been killed in Ethiopia’s war, millions of people in Tigray remain under a government blockade and hundreds of thousands of people in the Amhara region have been displaced as the Tigray fighters press on. Envoys from the African Union and the US in recent days held urgent discussions in search of an immediate ceasefire and a path to talks. But the warring sides indicated it would not be straightforward or easy.

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