Ethiopian blockade cuts off rebel region – Critics say many at risk of starving – By Jeffrey Gettleman, New York Times News Service

July 22nd, 2007 Print Print Email Email

NAIROBI — The Ethiopian government is blockading emergency food aid and choking off trade to large parts of a remote region in the eastern part of the country that is home to a rebel force, putting hundreds of thousands of people at risk of starvation, Western diplomats and humanitarian officials say. (more…)

NAIROBI — The Ethiopian government is blockading emergency food aid and choking off trade to large parts of a remote region in the eastern part of the country that is home to a rebel force, putting hundreds of thousands of people at risk of starvation, Western diplomats and humanitarian officials say.

The Ethiopian military and its proxy militias have also been siphoning off millions of dollars in international food aid, and using a UN polio eradication program to funnel money to their fighters, according to humanitarian officials, former Ethiopian government administrators, and a member of the Ethiopian Parliament who defected to Germany last month to protest the government’s actions.

The blockade takes aim at the heart of the Ogaden region, a vast desert on the Somali border where the government is struggling against a growing rebellion and where government soldiers have been accused by human rights groups of widespread brutality.

Humanitarian officials say the ban on aid convoys and commercial traffic, intended to squeeze the rebels and dry up their bases of support, has sent food prices skyrocketing and disrupted trade routes, preventing the nomads who live there from selling their livestock. Hundreds of thousands of people are now sealed off in a desiccated, unforgiving landscape that is difficult to survive in even in the best of times.

“Food cannot get in,” said Mohammed Diab, the director of the UN World Food Program in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government says the blockade covers only strategic locations, and is meant to prevent guns and other supplies from reaching the Ogaden National Liberation Front, the rebel force that the government considers a terrorist group. In April, the rebels killed more than 60 Ethiopian guards and Chinese workers at a Chinese-run oil field in the Ogaden.

“This is not a government which punishes its people,” said Nur Abdi Mohammed, a government spokesman. But Western diplomats have been urging Ethiopian officials to lift the blockade, saying many people in the area are running out of time.

The blockade, which involves soldiers and military trucks cutting off the few roads into the central Ogaden, comes as the US Congress is increasingly concerned about Ethiopia’s human rights record. Ethiopia is a close American ally and a key partner in America’s counterterrorism efforts in the Horn of Africa, a region that has become a breeding ground for Islamic militants.

Ethiopia’s decision on Friday to pardon 30 political prisoners who had been sentenced to life in prison could ease some criticism. But Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, is pushing ahead with measures to scrutinize assistance to the Ethiopian military more closely .

The country receives nearly half a billion dollars in American aid each year, but last week a House subcommittee passed a bill that would put strict conditions on some of that aid and ban Ethiopian officials linked to rights abuses from entering the United States.

The House also recently passed an amendment, sponsored by J. Randy Forbes, Republican of Virginia, that stripped Ethiopia of $3 million in assistance to “send a strong message that if they don’t wake up and pay attention, more money will be cut,” Forbes said.

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