NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — The medical charity Doctors Without Borders said Friday it was “horrified by the brutal murder” of three colleagues in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, the latest attack on humanitarian workers helping civilians in the deadly conflict there.
A statement by the aid group, also known by its French acronym MSF, said two Ethiopian colleagues and one from Spain were found dead Friday, a day after colleagues lost contact with them while they were traveling.
“This morning the vehicle was found empty and a few meters away, their lifeless bodies,” the statement said.
“We condemn this attack on our colleagues in the strongest possible terms and will be relentless in understanding of what happened,“ MSF added, calling it “unthinkable” that the three — emergency coordinator Maria Hernandez, assistant coordinator Yohannes Halefom Reda and driver Tedros Gebremariam Gebremichael — paid for their work with their lives.
In a statement, Ethiopia’s foreign ministry expressed condolences for the deaths it said occurred in the town of Abi Addi, and it suggested that Tigray fighters were to blame. It also called for military escorts — a thorny issue for many aid groups because Ethiopian forces, like all sides in the conflict, have been accused of abuses.
Another MSF team was attacked in March after witnessing Ethiopian soldiers pulling men off two public buses and shooting them dead. Soldiers beat the MSF driver and threatened to kill him, the aid group said at the time.
This latest attack occurred amid some of the fiercest fighting in Tigray since the conflict began in November. This week Ethiopia’s military acknowledged carrying out an airstrike on a busy market in Tigray that health workers said killed several dozen civilians. The military claimed it was targeting combatants.
Ethiopian soldiers detained six victims of the airstrike en route to a hospital and three were later released, a regional health official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. The three who are still being detained — two women and a 15 year-old boy — were not receiving medical care, said the official who added, “this is very desperate.” It’s unclear why they’re held.
The conflict in Tigray has been deeply challenging for humanitarian workers who have pleaded for better access to the region since the fighting began, with Ethiopian forces backed by ones from neighboring Eritrea pursuing Tigray’s former leaders.
At least 12 aid workers have now been killed since the conflict began.
Death by starvation is another looming crisis in Tigray. On Friday the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Samantha Power, tweeted that “terrifying” new findings show that up to 900,000 people in the region now face famine conditions, “with millions more at risk.”
The United Nations on Thursday warned that at least 33,000 children in inaccessible parts of Tigray “are severely malnourished and face imminent death without immediate help.”
Meanwhile, Ethiopia awaits the results of Monday’s national election, the first test at the polls for Abiy who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. a year after taking office. He now stands accused by critics of backsliding on political reforms.
Abiy’s government has said the election would be the first free and fair one in Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country. But on Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the vote “was not free or fair for all Ethiopians,” citing opposition boycotts, detentions of political leaders and insecurity in various parts of the country.
The statement also called for a cease-fire in Tigray and the withdrawal of Eritrean forces, who have been accused by witnesses of atrocities including gang-rapes and massacres.
In separate statement Friday, the European Union and 12 countries including Britain and Japan described “problematic conditions” regarding Monday’s election and urged a national dialogue to de-escalate conflict.
This version corrects to say the airstrike victims were detained en route to a hospital, not at the hospital.