July 26, 2007

Deal Near on Food for Sealed Area of Ethiopia


LAMU, Kenya, July 25 2007

United Nations officials and the Ethiopian government appear to have reached an agreement to allow emergency food aid into a conflict-ridden area that the Ethiopian military has been blockading for several weeks, both sides said on Wednesday.

Villagers in the Ogaden recently counted sacks of grain while rebel fighters watched.

But Ethiopian officials expelled the Red Cross from the same area after accusing its workers of being rebel spies.

According to Nur Abdi Mohammed, a government spokesman, food deliveries will soon begin to most parts of the eastern Ogaden region, which the Ethiopian military has recently sealed off in an apparent effort to squeeze a growing rebel movement there.

“The food distribution has started from the center to different areas,” Mr. Mohammed said. “I think it will reach most places soon. But where there is no security, there will not be deliveries.”

Peter Smerdon, a spokesman for the United Nations’ World Food Program, said that United Nations officials had been meeting with the Ethiopian government for several weeks about access for food aid and that teams had reached most parts of the conflict region to determine how much aid was needed.

“The food is still not there in all the zones, but there is a process under way,” Mr. Smerdon said. “We are working with Ethiopian officials and others on exactly how the food will be dispatched.”

Mr. Smerdon said that with food prices rapidly rising, local markets empty and the flood season beginning next month, there could be a “humanitarian crisis” in some areas unless the military lifted restrictions on food aid and commercial traffic.

The Ogaden is one of the poorest parts of one of the poorest countries, and also the site of an intense insurgency and counterinsurgency.

The most active rebel group in the area, and possibly all of Ethiopia, is the Ogaden National Liberation Front. The government considers it a group of rebel terrorists, especially after members attacked a Chinese oil field in the area in April, killing more than 60 soldiers and Chinese workers. At the same time, human rights groups and villagers say that Ethiopian troops have gang-raped women, burned down villages and tortured civilians.

Several former administrators from the area and a member of Parliament who recently defected have accused the Ethiopian military and its proxy militias of skimming food aid and using a United Nations polio eradication program to funnel money to fighters. The Ethiopian government has denied the accusations and said it was the Ogaden rebels who were stealing food aid and abusing the population. The government has also accused the Front of getting arms and training from Eritrea, Ethiopia’s enemy.

Western diplomats and lawmakers in Congress have expressed concern about Ethiopia’s human rights record. Several measures are moving through the House and Senate that would place strict conditions on assistance to Ethiopia, which receives nearly half a billion dollars in American aid each year.

Western diplomats in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, said their biggest issue was the military blockade, which they said was putting hundreds of thousands of impoverished nomads at risk of starvation. Several humanitarian officials have said that they need to temper their criticisms or not speak publicly so as to prevent their organizations from being permanently blocked from the area.

On Tuesday, regional government officials, who oversee the Ogaden, expelled the Red Cross.

“They were spies,” Mr. Mohammed said. “They were following regional officials and relaying information to the rebels.”

Red Cross officials declined to comment, saying they were still negotiating with the government to find a way to stay. The regional government has given the Red Cross, which runs water and livestock projects in the Ogaden, seven days to leave; its projects in other parts of the country would not be affected.

It seems that the Ethiopian government is increasingly suspicious about foreign involvement in the Ogaden, a desert on the Somali border where most residents are ethnic Somalis and where a separatist movement has brewed for decades.

Mohamed Abdi, an Ethiopian-American working as an interpreter for the American military in the Ogaden, has been held incommunicado and without charges in a prison in eastern Ethiopia since he was arrested in early May. Relatives and American Embassy officials said Mr. Abdi, 45, was working on humanitarian projects in the Ogaden when Ethiopian troops detained him and two American soldiers, who were soon released.

The New York Times

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