Ethiopia ‘abusing Ogaden people’
Ethiopian troops are systematically ill-treating civilians in their counter-insurgency campaign in the Somali region, Human Rights Watch says.
Ethnic Somali rebels have been fighting for more autonomy for two decades in the south-eastern region, also known as the Ogaden.
The US-based group also accused the United States and the European Union of ignoring widespread abuses there.
An Ethiopian government official denied the allegations as “old fabrications”.
HRW cites evidence of extrajudicial detentions and killings, beatings and rapes in military custody, forced displacement of the rural population and the collective punishment of communities suspected of helping or sympathising with the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) rebels.
“We found that over the last year the Ethiopian army has been killing, raping, torturing and systematically displacing civilians in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia,” HRW’s Georgette Gagnon told the BBC’s Network Africa programme.
She said there was no doubt about the identity of those carrying out the abuses.
“All the victims and eyewitnesses that we interviewed clearly identified the Ethiopian army and soldiers as those who had raped them, for example, who had summarily killed people by strangling, and who had forcibly displaced them and burned their villages.”
One recurrent scenario was of the army’s response to ONLF activity in a neighbourhood; they would call the inhabitants together and demand that they hand over the culprits.
Failure to do so, HRW says, resulted in village elders and others being arrested, beaten, sometimes killed.
Young people, both boys and girls, were arbitrarily arrested and accused of being ONLF sympathisers; they were routinely beaten in custody and women often raped, HRW says.
The apparently arbitrary nature of many of the arrests was explained to HRW by a former judge in the region who said the army could not tell the difference between rebels and civilians, he said they were confused as to who was who.
The report concludes that the army is engaged in a deliberate policy of terrorising the local population; that the abuses are far too systematic and widespread to be considered simply the acts of rogue commanders.
But Bereket Simon, special adviser to Ethiopia’s prime minister, said that HRW had based its findings on ONLF propaganda.
“Human Rights Watch is engaged in misinforming the public based on the information of the ONLF, whose forces have been destroyed by the actions of the Ethiopian government,” he told AFP news agency.
Group accuses Ethiopia of war crimes in Ogaden
New York-based Human Rights Watch said America’s relationship with Ethiopia means an alliance with a country repeatedly accused of violating human and political rights. In recent years, Ethiopia has become a U.S. partner in the fight against al-Qaida, which has been trying to sink roots in the Horn of Africa.
“The United States is being willfully blind,” Georgette Gagnon, Africa director for Human Rights Watch, told The Associated Press. “Because Ethiopia is viewed as a key ally in the counterterrorism efforts, they are perhaps prepared to look the other way at abuses committed by Ethiopian soldiers.”
In a 130-page report, Human Rights Watch said Ethiopian troops have beaten and strangled civilians, staged public executions and burned villages during a year-old campaign against rebels in the Ogaden, an arid stretch of land on the border with Somalia. The group said the allegations were based on more than 100 eyewitness accounts.
A State Department spokesman, Gonzalo Gallegos, said officials have not seen the report. He declined to comment generally about the insurgency in the Ogaden. The European Union said it has no comment to make while it is looking into the accusations.
Bereket Simon, special adviser to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, denied all allegations in the report.
“It’s the same old fabrication,” he said.
Asked whether an internal investigation was planned, he said: “How can we investigate lies and innuendoes? How can we try to disprove lies by investigating?”
Ethnic Somalis have been fighting in the Ogaden for more than a decade, seeking greater autonomy or an independent state. Somalia lost control of the region — the size of Britain and home to around 4 million people, in a war in 1977.
The region also is being explored for oil and gas. Ethiopian forces stepped up their operations after the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front attacked a Chinese-run oil exploration field in April 2007, killing 74 people.
“The Ethiopian army’s answer to the rebels has been to viciously attack civilians in the Ogaden,” Gagnon said.
Ethiopia’s military has been stretched in recent years. Thousands of soldiers are stationed in neighboring Somalia, propping up the government there and trying to quash a vicious Islamic insurgency. Ethiopian troops also are massing along the border with Eritrea amid signs of looming war.
Gagnon said Western governments and institutions give at least US$2 billion in aid to Ethiopia every year. The “deafening silence” by the United States, Britain and the European Union, amounts to complicity in the crimes, she said.
“Influential states use many excuses, such as lack of information and strategic priorities, to downplay the grave human rights concerns in Somali Region (the Ogaden),” she said. “But crimes against humanity can’t be swept under the carpet.”
The report also said the army’s tactics could be fueling a looming humanitarian crisis, brought on by a countrywide drought and skyrocketing global food prices. Because of the military campaign, the government has restricted humanitarian agencies and others from accessing the Ogaden at a time when some 4.5 million people are in need of emergency food aid.
Human Rights Watch said the Ogaden National Liberation Front also has violated humanitarian law by conducting the oil attack and by setting land mines along roads.
ONLF spokesman Abdirahaman Mahdi said the oil attack targeted soldiers guarding the area. The other victims were “caught in the crossfire,” he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from London.
He added that the situation in the Ogaden is “a deliberate international connivance to annihilate our people.”
AP Writer Malkhadir M. Muhumed contributed to this report.