LAMU, Kenya: United Nations officials and the Ethiopian government appear to have reached an agreement allowing emergency food aid into an embattled area that the Ethiopian military has been blockading for several weeks, both sides said Wednesday. But Ethiopian government officials expelled the Red Cross from the same area after accusing its workers of being spies.
Nur Abdi Mohammed, a government spokesman, said food deliveries would soon begin to most parts of the Ogaden, an eastern region that the Ethiopian military has recently sealed off in what appears to be an effort to squeeze a growing rebel movement.
"The food distribution has started from the center to different areas," 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 UN officials had been meeting with the Ethiopian government for several weeks about access for food aid and that assessment teams had now reached most parts of the conflict region.
"The food is still not there in all the zones, but there is a process under way," Smerdon said. "We are working with Ethiopian officials and others on exactly how the food will be dispatched so it arrives with the people who monitor the distribution."
Smerdon said that with food prices rapidly rising, local markets empty and the flood season due to begin next month, there could be a "humanitarian crisis" in some areas unless the military lifted the restrictions on food aid and commercial traffic soon.
The Ogaden is one of the poorest parts of one of the poorest countries in the world, and it is also the site of an intense insurgency and counterinsurgency. According to human rights groups and firsthand accounts, Ethiopian troops have gang-raped women, burned down villages and tortured civilians.
Several former administrators from the area and a recently defected member of Parliament have accused the Ethiopian military and its proxy militias of skimming food aid and using a UN polio-eradication program to funnel money to their fighters. The Ethiopian government has denied these charges and said it was the Ogaden National Liberation Front, one of the most active of Ethiopia's many separatist groups, that was stealing food aid and abusing the population. The Ethiopian government has also accused the Ogaden rebels of getting arms and training from Eritrea, Ethiopia's neighbor and a bitter enemy.
Western diplomats and lawmakers in the U.S. Congress have expressed increasing concern about Ethiopia's human rights record. Several measures are moving through the House and the 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 right now 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, or that their organizations might be permanently blocked from the area.
On Tuesday, the Somali regional government, which oversees the Ogaden, expelled the Red Cross, accusing its workers of providing weapons, money and sensitive information to the rebels.
"They were spies," Mohammed said. "They were following regional officials and relaying information to the rebels. We warned them to stop and they didn't."
Red Cross officials declined to comment, saying they were still negotiating with the government in the hopes of working out 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 the area. Red Cross projects in other parts of the country will not be affected.