Fifteen members of a contingent of Ethiopian peacekeepers in South Sudan, originally from the Tigray region, have refused to return to Ethiopia, the UN said, citing their right to seek asylum if they fear for their lives.
Tigray has been the theater of fighting since early November 2020, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced military operations against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), accusing them of attacking federal army camps.
He declared victory after pro-government troops took regional capital Mekele in late November, though the TPLF vowed to fight on and clashes have persisted in the region, hampering efforts to deliver sorely-needed humanitarian assistance.
“This morning, 169 members of the Ethiopian contingent were due to rotate out of Juba and (be) replaced by fresh contingents, a part of a normal rotation,” said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric during his daily press conference on Monday.
“We’re trying to get the details, but I do understand about 15 members of the contingent chose not to board the flight at the Juba airport… They’ve asked to stay,” he said, adding that “any person in need of international protection has the right to seek asylum.”
“They are receiving support from the South Sudanese Ministry of Refugee Affairs,” Dujarric continued, adding that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is “aware” of the situation and in contact with South Sudanese authorities.
The UNHCR defends the principle of “non-refoulement,” or allowing refugees or people seeking asylum not to return to their country of origin “if they feel their lives or freedom could be threatened,” Dujarric said.
Ethiopian army Major General Mohammed Tesema on Tuesday denounced the attitude of the stayaway peacekeepers, saying they created turmoil “by shouting and rolling their bodies on the ground to grab attention from the international community” in order to “mar the image of Ethiopia”.
Tesema also called on the UNHCR to “apologise for the disinformation it has circulated”, accusing some UNHCR personnel of having links to the TPLF.