Ethiopia accuses WHO chief Tedros of backing Tigray rebels

ADDIS ABABA/GENEVA (Reuters) - Ethiopia’s military accused World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Thursday of supporting and trying to procure arms and diplomatic backing for Tigray state’s dominant political party, which is fighting federal forces.

FILE PHOTO: World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a news conference in Geneva Switzerland July 3, 2020. Fabrice Coffrini/Pool via REUTERS//File Photo

“He himself is a member of that group and he is a criminal,” army chief of staff General Birhanu Jula said in a televised statement, before calling for him to be removed. Birhanu did not offer any evidence to support his accusations.

Tedros, in a tweet posted in the evening, denied taking sides in the conflict in his home country Ethiopia and called on all parties there to work for peace and the safety of civilians.

“There have been reports suggesting I am taking sides in this situation. This is not true and I want to say that I am on only one side and that is the side of peace,” said Tedros, 55, who is of Tigrayan ethnicity.

Western diplomats in Geneva said that in the absence of any evidence of wrongdoing, there was no rush to judgment or move to challenge Tedros at the WHO.

On Twitter, Britain’s ambassador Julian Braithwaite posted a photo of himself and Tedros after a Thursday meeting on the campaign led by WHO and the GAVI vaccine alliance to distribute COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and tests to poor countries.

The accusations against Tedros came with the WHO under serious strain trying to coordinate global efforts against the COVID-19 pandemic after the United States, its biggest donor, froze funding over a spat involving China. Cases and deaths are rising again in many countries around the world.

Tedros served as Ethiopia’s health minister and foreign minister from 2005-2016 in a ruling coalition led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF effectively ruled Ethiopia for decades as the most powerful part of the coalition, until Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy took office in 2018.

Abiy has since folded the other three regional parties into his own national party, but the TPLF refused to join.

Birhanu accused Tedros of using his international platform to try to get diplomatic support and weapons for the TPLF.

“He has been doing everything to support them, he has campaigned to get the neighbouring countries to condemn the war. He has worked to facilitate weapons for them (the TPLF),” he said in a televised news conference.

Tedros was elected in 2017 as the WHO’s first African director-general on a platform of promoting universal healthcare.

Earlier this year, President Donald Trump announced the United States would leave the WHO in July 2021 after accusing Tedros of not doing enough to hold China to account for what Trump described as initial attempts to cover up the COVID-19 outbreak.

Tedros has dismissed the suggestions, saying: “We are close to every nation, we are colour-blind.”

Reporting by Addis Ababa newsroom and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Katharine Houreld and Mark Heinrich