United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres shakes hands with Iran's regime Hossein Amir-Abdollahian during a meeting of the United Nations Security Council on the crisis in the Gaza Strip at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., January 23, 2024. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

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By Michelle Nichols

 – United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres vowed on Sunday to hold to account “any U.N. employee involved in acts of terror” after allegations that some refugee agency staffers were involved in the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel.

But Guterres implored governments to continue supporting the U.N. refugee agency for Palestinians (UNRWA) after nine countries paused funding.

“Any U.N. employee involved in acts of terror will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution,” the U.N. chief said in a statement. “The Secretariat is ready to cooperate with a competent authority able to prosecute the individuals in line with the Secretariat’s normal procedures for such cooperation.”

At the same time, he said, “The tens of thousands of men and women who work for UNRWA, many in some of the most dangerous situations for humanitarian workers, should not be penalized. The dire needs of the desperate populations they serve must be met.”

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In his first direct comments on the issue, the U.N. chief gave details about the UNRWA staffers implicated in the “abhorrent alleged acts.” Of the 12 implicated, he said, nine had been terminated, one was confirmed dead and the identities of the other two were being clarified.

Britain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Finland on Saturday joined the United States, Australia and Canada in pausing funding to the aid agency, a critical source of support for people in Gaza, after the allegations by Israel.

“While I understand their concerns – I was myself horrified by these accusations – I strongly appeal to the governments that have suspended their contributions to, at least, guarantee the continuity of UNRWA’s operations,” Guterres said.

Adopting a sharper tone, UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said, “It would be immensely irresponsible to sanction an Agency and an entire community it serves because of allegations of criminal acts against some individuals, especially at a time of war, displacement and political crises in the region. ”

In a statement he urged countries to reconsider funding suspensions. “The lives of people in Gaza depend on this support and so does regional stability,” Lazzarini said.

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(Reporting by Michelle Nichols in New York; Additional reporting by Emma Farge in Geneva; Editing by William Mallard)