NAIROBI, Kenya -- 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, The Associated Press has found.
Thousands of Tigrayans in the capital, Addis Ababa, and across Africa's second most populous country have already been detained and fears of more such detentions soared on Thursday as authorities ordered landlords to register tenants' identities with police. Meanwhile, 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 following 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 the elderly - appear to be on the basis of ethnicity.
The daughter of a British national, Meron Kiros, told the AP her 55-year-old father, Kiros Amdemariam Gebreab, had lived in the U.K. for more than a quarter-century and was visiting Ethiopia to work on his PhD studies when he was detained at his home in the capital on Nov. 1.
“My father has no political involvement in what has been happening,” she said and attributed 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 told the AP it has raised his case with Ethiopian authorities. Britain believes a very small number of U.K. nationals have been detained.
At least two U.S. citizens are among the Tigrayans detained as well.
A hotelier and his son were detained at their home on Nov. 2, the evening the state of emergency was imposed. Police officers accused them of supporting the Tigray forces, another of the hotelier’s children told the AP. The father, in his late seventies, 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 U.S.,” the relative said, speaking like many on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
A State Department spokesperson told the AP that the U.S. is “concerned about reports of detentions of a number of U.S. citizens in Ethiopia and is in active discussion with the government of Ethiopia about the matter.”
But the overwhelming majority of Tigrayans detained have been local, some of them high-profile.
On Monday morning, the CEO of Lion Bank was detained along with seven of his colleagues and a customer, a lawyer told the AP. 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 Nov. 5 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 is “only a matter of time” before he is arrested, too.
Federal police spokesman Jeylan Abdi told the AP he did not know the number of people detained since the state of emergency was declared last week. He said the detainees are held in various police stations and the total had not been tallied.
He dismissed as “propaganda" allegations that detentions are ethnically motivated and said searches found weapons in the detainees' possession, including assault rifles and heavy machine guns, as well as military uniforms.
The police spokesman also confirmed the presence in the capital of “community policing” groups, staffed by volunteers, but said they are “not new.” He said they are patrolling their neighborhoods with sticks and working with the police to identify threats.
“They organize themselves, they elect their chairman and they protect the security around their home, not only from terrorist group but even ordinary crime,” he said.
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 are displaced as the Tigray fighters press on. Envoys from the African Union and the U.S. in recent days held urgent discussions in search of an immediate cease-fire and a path to talks. But the warring sides indicated it will not be straightforward or easy.
“I believe that all sides see the dangers of perpetuating the conflict,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters on Wednesday. “The alternative of conflict that overtakes Ethiopia, spills out of the country, spills into the region, should be sobering to everyone.”