Zenawi’s Soldiers blocking civilian access to medicine in conflict zone, agency says – The Associated Press

September 4th, 2007 Print Print Email Email

NAIROBI, Kenya: Zenawi’s soldiers are chasing women and children away from wells in the desert and blocking civilians from getting medical care in an eastern Ethiopian region where a rebellion is brewing, the aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres said Tuesday. (more…)

NAIROBI, Kenya: Zenawi’s soldiers are chasing women and children away from wells in the desert and blocking civilians from getting medical care in an eastern Ethiopian region where a rebellion is brewing, the aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres said Tuesday.

Ethiopian officials were not immediately available for comment.

Local and international staff of the agency, also known as Doctors Without Borders, withdrew from most of the Ogaden region in July because of insecurity.

Later, the agency felt security had improved but several attempts to return have failed because authorities said aid groups were being held back for their own safety and would be allowed to return once military operations had ended, said Loris de Filippi, the agency’s operational coordinator for Ethiopia.

Eileen Skinnider of Doctors Without Borders said she saw soldiers driving women and children away from wells in the Ogaden and a team treated several victims of beatings and some civilians with gunshot wounds. Skinnider described driving through roads lined with burnt-out or mostly deserted villages, with elderly and sick inhabitants cowering in their huts.

“They first hid when they heard the sound of vehicles approaching,” Skinnider said about a trip to one village. “They told us that they were afraid that if they were still found in their village, it would be burnt.”

Following the withdrawal of Doctors Without Borders and the International Red Cross, which says it was ordered to leave by the government last month, there are no foreign aid workers in the region and no reliable information about what is happening.

De Filippi said that in the three worst pockets of fighting in the Ogaden, 400,000 people share one physician. Doctors Without Borders had not been able to deliver vital drugs for six months, he said, adding that to get help women suffering from complications while giving birth would have to make an arduous journey that takes up to nine hours by car.

Doctors Without Borders said it was impossible to know how many people were hungry or sick in the parched, famine-prone area without being able to do an assessment, but the agency’s staff had seen no commercial trucks carrying food in areas where the fighting was fiercest and had seen several cases of malnutrition before pulling out in July.

Clashes between Ethiopian soldiers and rebels intensified in the region after Ogaden National Liberation Front rebels killed 74 members of a Chinese-run oil exploration team in April.

The Ogaden National Liberation Front, which says it is fighting for the rights of the region’s roughly 4 million ethnic Somali people, has accused the government of burning down villages, blocking food aid and attacking civilians.

The government says the rebels are backed by Ethiopia’s bitter enemy Eritrea in an attempt to destabilize the country.

No journalists or aid workers are currently allowed in the region, although a U.N. assessment team is currently in the region. The rebels have declared a unilateral cease-fire until the U.N. mission completes its work. Filippi said so far the U.N. team had not visited any of the areas worst affected by the fighting.
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