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Ogaden Locals Allege Abuses by Soldiers
NewsOgaden Locals Allege Abuses by Soldiers

By ANITA POWELL 9 hours ago

KEBRIDEHAR, Ethiopia (AP) In the desert stretches of eastern Ethiopia, locals accuse soldiers fighting an insurgency of burning villages to the ground, committing gang rape and killing people "like goats."

The allegations have drawn the attention of international human rights campaigners to this remote corner of a key U.S. ally.

Ethiopia's prime minister says his troops are fighting against a separatist movement in the region known as the Ogaden, and he denies that soldiers have committed such atrocities.

"This is a counterinsurgency. I am not going to tell you there hasn't been anyone beaten up. I am absolutely confident that there has not been any widespread violation of human rights," Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told journalists Wednesday.

But a thin, pensive 30-year-old man, who spoke on condition of anonymity this week because of fear of reprisals, told The Associated Press that the army had burned two villages Lebiga and Korelitsa to the ground Nov. 23, killing one man.

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

Officials in the area, which covers nearly 80,000 square miles, said they had heard similar reports. They also asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The 30-year-old man described gang rapes and public hangings, and said 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.

A 26-year-old man, who also asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals, accused the government of withholding food to punish fighters and supporters of the Ogaden National Liberation Front.

For more than a decade, the ethnic Somali rebels have been fighting for greater autonomy in the region, which is being heavily explored for oil and gas. In April, they attacked a Chinese-run oil exploration field in the region, killing 74 people. The Ethiopian military began counterinsurgency operations in May.

The ONLF accuses the government of human rights abuses; the government accuses the rebels of being terrorists funded by its archenemy, Eritrea.

The U.S. looks to Ethiopia to help fight the war on terror in East Africa, where al-Qaida has claimed responsibility for several attacks, including the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 225 people.

But working with Ethiopia against terror means an alliance with a country accused of violating human and political rights. Last year, the Ethiopian government acknowledged its security forces killed 193 civilians protesting a disputed election but insisted excessive force was not used.

Earlier this year, New York-based Human Rights Watch accused the Ethiopian army of blocking aid, burning homes and displacing thousands of civilians in the Ogaden region.

Ethiopia 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.

In the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, the prime minister told journalists Wednesday that human rights abuses and a humanitarian crisis, "didn't exist. Doesn't exist. Will not exist" in the Ogaden.

Meles, a former rebel, said that he would not repeat the measures taken against him by previous regimes and his government will not commit "widespread human rights violations."

"We know firsthand how to fight an insurgency and how to avoid stupid mistakes," Meles said.

John Holmes, the U.N.'s humanitarian chief, visited the region Tuesday and on Wednesday described the humanitarian situation there as "potentially serious."

He said that he had talked with Meles and other Ethiopian officials about opening up transport and trade, expanding food distribution and addressing human rights concerns. He said Meles took the human rights "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.

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

The mission also said that recent fighting in the region had led to a worsening humanitarian situation and called for a substantial increase in emergency food aid.

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