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'Humanitarian crisis' facing Ethiopia, says UN

By Steve Bloomfield

Ethiopia's remote Ogaden region is facing a "major humanitarian crisis" , a senior United Nations official has warned. Speaking after a visit to the region, Sir John Holmes, the UN's emergency relief co-ordinator, said the Ogaden's 4.5 million inhabitants urgently need aid to be delivered.

The Ogaden region, which borders Somalia, has been the scene of a violent insurgency by rebels calling for greater autonomy. Ethiopia's government has responded with a brutal counter-insurgency operation which has paralysed trade and forced thousands to flee their homes.

Refugees who have fled the Ogaden to Somalia told The Independent in October that Ethiopian soldiers are burning villages, raping women and killing civilians as part of a systematic campaign to drive them from their homes.

They said dozens of villages had been destroyed and accused the Ethiopian government of forcibly starving its own people by preventing food convoys reaching villages and destroying crops and livestock.

Sir John called on Ethiopia's Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, to sanction an independent investigation of alleged human rights abuses carried out by Ethiopian troops.

"The Prime Minister told me that counter-insurgency operations are not picnics," Sir John said. "But the allegations must be taken seriously and there must be an independent investigation."

"He did not say yes. But he did not say no either."

Human rights investigators are gathering evidence of widespread use of rape, with women reporting gang-rapes by up to a dozen soldiers. In some villages men have been abducted at night, their dead bodies dumped in the village the next morning.

A UN team visited the Ogaden in October to assess the humanitarian situation, following reports of abuses. Aid agencies and journalists had been banned from the region. Since then Ethiopia has allowed the UN's humanitarian office to set up two bases within the region and has allowed aid agencies to return.

Following his trip to Ethiopia, Sir John travelled to Sudan where he visited the El-Neem camp in Darfur that is home to more than 50,000 people who fled attacks by Sudanese troops and janjaweed militia.

In recent weeks Sudan has stepped up efforts to close down the camps, which President Omar al-Bashir called "museums of despair". Rebel groups have been arming supporters inside the camps, although pro-government groups have also been given weapons by Khartoum.

The Wali of South Darfur has threatened to begin forcibly disarming rebel supporters in Kalma camp, near the town of Nyala, this month.

Sir John said the camps have become "tinderboxes", warning that any moves to forcibly disarm people inside the camps would be "very dangerous".

"The wish to make camps safer places is entirely legitimate," he said, "but the government must be extremely careful. It could be very counter-productive."

The UN itself has come under fire from senior aid officials working in Darfur for not dealing strongly enough with the Khartoum government.

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