The United Nation's migration agency has put its Ethiopia chief on administrative leave, citing "unauthorised interviews" in which she complained of being sidelined by UN higher-ups she claimed were sympathetic to Tigrayan rebels.
The departure of Maureen Achieng, confirmed in a letter dated Monday and seen by AFP, risks further undermining an aid response still shaken by Ethiopia's decision last month to expel seven other senior UN officials for allegedly "meddling" in its affairs.
It comes more than 11 months into a brutal war in northern Ethiopia that has driven hundreds of thousands of people into famine-like conditions, according to UN estimates, and sparked mounting global concern.
Last week, multiple recordings surfaced online of Achieng and another senior UN official granting a lengthy interview to Jeff Pearce, a writer who has published multiple articles defending the government's conduct of the war against the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).
In the recordings, Achieng, the International Organization for Migration's chief of mission to Ethiopia, tears into colleagues who "descended on" Addis Ababa after the war erupted last November and, in her telling, sidelined officials on the ground.
She also calls the TPLF "dirty" and "vicious", vowing never to return to Tigray.
At one point she accuses the rebels of plotting to have Tigrayan migrant workers facing deportation from Saudi Arabia sent to Rwanda.
"And then you don't know what guerrilla movement starts from Rwanda. I mean, it's dirty," she says.
In an internal note to colleagues last week, also seen by AFP, Achieng said she was "deeply disturbed and disappointed" by the audio, which she said had been "surreptitiously recorded and selectively edited."
However at several points during the interview the participants openly discuss that it is being recorded.
- 'We do not take sides' -
On Monday Antonio Vitorino, director general of IOM, wrote a letter distancing the agency from Achieng's comments.
"The opinions attributed in the audio recordings to the staff member do not correspond to IOM's principles and values and should not in any way be considered as expressing IOM's positions," it said.
The letter, which does not refer to Achieng by name, says she was "immediately recalled" and "put on administrative leave" pending an investigation.
Her interview violated the IOM's values and code of conduct, Mohammed Abdiker, the agency's regional director for the East and Horn of Africa, told AFP.
"In all our operations we try to be impartial and neutral in our work. We do not take sides in a conflict," Abdiker said, adding that Achieng's comments raised security concerns for staff members on the ground, including in Tigray.
The dust-up comes amid fears fighting is about to intensify again, with the TPLF saying Monday that government troops had launched ground offensives "on all fronts" including in the northern region of Amhara.
Ethiopian officials have not confirmed the new offensive, though a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said the government had "a responsibility to protect its citizens in all parts of the country from any acts of terrorism".
Humanitarian and rebel sources told AFP over the weekend that Ethiopian troops had launched air and ground strikes as part of the first phase of an offensive which -- if confirmed -- would come just one week after Abiy was sworn in for a new five-year term.
A US State Department spokesperson told AFP Monday that Washington was considering "the use of targeted economic sanctions to hold accountable those responsible for, or complicit in, prolonging the conflict".