Soldiers continue human rights abuses in Ethiopia’s beleaguered southeast, say residents – The Associated Press

November 28th, 2007 Print Print Email Email

The army, the man said, was killing his neighbors “like goats.” (more…)

The army, the man said, was killing his neighbors “like goats.”

KEBRIDEHAR, Ethiopia: EthiopianWoyanne soldiers have abused civilians, committing arson and rape, in a southeastern area where they are fighting rebels, but there have been some improvements in aid delivery, residents said.

Ethiopia’s prime minister, however, denies there is a humanitarian crisis in the Ogaden and his government has denied its soldiers have committed abuses. A top United Nations relief official who visited the region Tuesday said much more remains to be done.

A thin, pensive 30-year-old man, who asked not to be identified out of fear, told The Associated Press about two incidents on Friday in which the army burned two villages, Lebiga and Korelitsa, to the ground, killing one man.

The army, the man said, was killing his neighbors “like goats.”

Officials in the area said they had heard similar reports. They also asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The man also described rapes — some of them gang rapes — and public hangings in the region and said that villagers had been told not to speak to international observers. Officials in the area also said villagers had been told not to speak to outsiders, and that also was mentioned in a September report by a U.N. fact-finding mission.

Another man, 26, who also asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals, accused the government of withholding food in order to punish fighters and supporters of the Ogaden National Liberation Front, a separatist movement that in April attacked a Chinese-run oil exploration field in the region, killing 74 people. In May, the EthiopianWoyanne military began counterinsurgency operations, which has stymied trade and some food aid.

On Tuesday, the region appeared calm. Government soldiers dotted the flat, arid landscape and towns of Jijiga and Kebridehar, though there was no evidence of any significant military operations. Women — some wearing scarves of hot pink — fluttered through the streets. Men in Jijiga walked along the main promenade.

But when questioned, residents were reticent. One man in Kebridehar said he believed the streets were full of military intelligence officers.

In the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi dismissed a question in parliament about a pending crisis in the Ogaden.

“Whatever some international media and some organizations said about the Ogaden, it’s absolutely a lie that there’s a humanitarian crisis in the Ogaden,” Meles told parliament on Tuesday. “Some people from the U.N. actually wanted to see for themselves what was going on in the Ogaden and I told them to go see from themselves what was actually there.”

John Holmes, the U.N.’s humanitarian chief, on Wednesday described the humanitarian situation in the Ogaden as “potentially serious.”

“I didn’t get the impression that we are in a catastrophic situation now,” Holmes told journalists, adding, however, “there’s an awful lot of challenges still to address.”

Those challenges included opening up transport and trade, expanding food distribution and addressing human rights concerns, he said.

Holmes said he discussed these issues Wednesday with top EthiopianWoyanne officials, including Meles.

About human rights, he said Meles, “responded seriously. He takes the issue seriously.”

Holmes said he heard many secondhand reports of human rights abuses and said that “they come from numerous and sufficiently varied sources to be taken seriously.” He did not give details.

In recent months, EthiopianWoyanne has expelled the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Dutch branch of Medecins Sans Frontieres from Ogaden. But in recent weeks the government has allowed 19 non-governmental organizations to return to work in the Ogaden.

The U.N. fact-finding mission said in September that the situation in the Ogaden had deteriorated rapidly and called for an independent investigation into the humanitarian issues there.

The mission also said that recent fighting in the region had led to a worsening humanitarian situation and a doubling of the price of food. It also called for a substantial increase in emergency food aid to the impoverished region where rebels have been fighting for increased autonomy for more than a decade.

Simon Mechale, director of the EthiopianWoyanne government’s Disaster Preparedness and Prevention Agency, said on Tuesday that his talks with people in the region provided a more optimistic picture.

“From what I have seen so far, I did not see any amazing or disturbing thing,” he said.

The Ogaden National Liberation Front is fighting to overthrow the government for what it says are human rights abuses and to establish greater autonomy in the region being heavily explored for oil and gas. The government accuses the rebels of being terrorists funded by its archenemy Eritrea.

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