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40th Anniversary of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front

The United Nations Security Council will privately discuss on Friday a decision by Ethiopia to expel seven senior U.N. officials, diplomats said, as malnutrition rates rise and famine looms in the country’s war-torn northern region of Tigray.

The United States, Britain, Ireland, Estonia, France and Norway, plan to raise the issue during a closed-door meeting of the 15-member body, but diplomats say any strong action is unlikely as Russia and China have long made clear they believe the conflict is an internal affair for Ethiopia.

The expulsions of the U.N. staff were announced by Ethiopia on Thursday, two days after U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths warned that a “de-facto” aid blockade had likely forced hundreds of thousands of people in Tigray into famine.

Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to requests for comment on the expulsion of U.N. staff. Ethiopia has previously denied blocking food aid.

“As a major new military offensive looms, this seems like Ethiopia’s attempt to test if the international community is prepared to respond with more than words to an unfolding famine,” a senior Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.

War broke out 10 months ago between Ethiopia’s federal troops and forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which controls Tigray. Thousands have died and more than two million people have been forced to flee their homes.

The conflict’s spillover to neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions is fueling a rise displacement and people in need. In June, a U.N. assessment found that 400,000 people in Tigray were in famine-like conditions.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was shocked by Ethiopia’s move to expel U.N. officials and said on Thursday that the world body was engaging the government “in the expectation that the concerned U.N. staff will be allowed to continue their important work.”

The United States condemned the expulsions and warned that it would not hesitate to use sanctions against those who obstruct humanitarian efforts.

The United Nations stressed on Friday that it was critical that the aid operation continue in Tigray, where 5.2 million people need help.

Only about 11% of the trucks needed to bring life-saving food have entered Tigray since mid-July, U.N. humanitarian aid spokesman Jens Laerke said on Friday. He also said that 79% of pregnant and lactating women screened in Tigray last week were diagnosed with acute malnutrition.

“Until now there is no indication that it (Ethiopia’s decision) stops the operation,” he told reporters in Geneva.

U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said of the decision to expel U.N. staff: “The scale, seven people across three agencies, is extremely rare, if not unprecedented.”