UN presses Ethiopia to probe Ogaden allegations
Posted 29th November 2007
By Barry Malone
ADDIS ABABA, Nov 28 (Reuters) – U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes urged Ethiopia on Wednesday to investigate allegations of rights abuses in the Ogaden region where troops have battled rebels this year in an upsurge of an old conflict.
Holmes’ trip on Tuesday was the most high-profile visit to the remote southeastern region since Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) rebels killed 74 people in an attack on a Chinese-run oil exploration field in April.
That attack provoked a big government offensive, with both sides claiming to have killed hundreds of fighters.
Aid agencies say people in the region are suffering severe food and medical needs because of the fighting, and the United Nations says 953,000 are in need of help.
“What I was trying to do was symbolise by my visit the extent of international concern about the situation there and the depths of our concern to avert a serious humanitarian crisis there in the future,” Holmes told reporters in Addis Ababa.
The Ogaden conflict, which dates back to 1984, has been largely overshadowed by other hot-spots in Africa, including neighbouring Somalia and Sudan’s Darfur region.
Holmes said he raised the allegations of abuses with Ethiopian officials including Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
The ONLF say troops have been attacking locals, burning down villages and engaging in widespread rape. But the government says it is the rebels — whom it calls “terrorists” backed by arch-enemy Eritrea — who are guilty.
“They (the allegations) need to be looked at carefully, they need to be taken seriously and, if possible, they need to be investigated openly and independently,” Holmes said.
“He (Meles) recognises the difficulty of conducting a counter-insurgency campaign without damage, as it were. Because that is not possible … he said he would continue to take it seriously and make sure that didn’t happen as far as he could.”
Holmes said that during his whistle-stop tour of the Ogaden he largely met Ethiopian and other U.N. officials, rather than locals, as he visited regional capital Jijiga and the remote town of Kebridehar to inspect relief work.
He said his limited time restricted his ability to gather information, and added he saw little military presence.
“Whether that is typical or whether it was arranged for my benefit I cannot say,” he said.
An ONLF spokesman said the visit had clearly been “stage-managed” by the government to hide the truth.
Meles on Tuesday dismissed claims of a potential catastrophe in the region. “Whatever some international media and some organisations said about the Ogaden, it’s absolutely a lie that there’s a humanitarian crisis,” he told parliament.
(Reporting by Barry Malone; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Caroline Drees)
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