ADDIS ABABA (AFP) — A United Nations panel on Wednesday recommended an independent probe into alleged human rights violations in Ethiopia's Ogaden region, where the army has cracked down on rebels.
A UN fact-finding mission travelled to Ogaden in late August to probe allegations that the military had committed rights abuses in its clampdown on Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) insurgents.
"The mission received reports and direct accounts of serious violations of human rights, including substantive protection concerns for the civilian population," the panel said in a report.
"It is the mission's view that these reported human rights concerns require independent investigation," it recommended, warning that humanitarian conditions in the conflict zone have "deteriorated substantially."
A UN official expressed hope in working with Addis Ababa to address the problem.
"We received alarming reports. We have heard enough to justify such an investigation," said the official.
In a statement, the rebels welcomed the call for a probe and pledged to cooperate.
"Such an investigation must be under the auspices of the United Nations and, unlike the recent fact-finding mission, must not be limited to routes approved by the current regime," the ONLF said in an e-mailed statement.
"This future independent investigative mission must also seek the views of the ONLF and not just the regime in order to be truly independent," it said.
The ONLF renewed a warning that another "African genocide" was unfolding in the region, where it said thousands of displaced civilians had fled to neighbouring Somalia without essential supplies over the past four months.
The Ethiopian army has flatly rejected the claims, and instead said its campaign is not targeting civilians, but the rebels whom it accuses of carrying out "terrorist" activities.
The UN panel called for urgent aid supplies and protection of civilians in the region.
"Humanitarian conditions within the conflict areas have deteriorated substantially (...) the price of food has nearly doubled.
"Government restrictions of commercial and livestock trade aimed at preventing contraband activity have markedly aggravated an already fragile food security and livelihood situation," the report said.
"Emergency food aid should be provided immediately for approximately 600,000 people for three months," said the report, explaining the crackdown has delayed aid operations.
"For now, the government and all other parties involved in military operations should take appropriate and urgent actions to protect civilian populations in the region," it added.
Addis Ababa has already expelled Doctors Without Borders and the International Committee for the Red Cross from Ogaden for allegedly meddling in politics.
A spokesman for Ethiopia's foreign ministry, Wahide Beleye, told AFP: "The main point is that the report is confirming what the government is thinking especially about the humanitarian situation in this region. If there are other details we will release them tomorrow."
The Ethiopian army launched a crackdown on the region, which is about the same size as Britain and has a population of about four million, following an attack by the ONLF rebel group against a Chinese oil venture in April that left 77 people dead.
Predominantly barren, the Ogaden has long been extremely poor, but in recent years the discovery of gas and oil has brought both hopes of wealth and new causes of conflict.
Ethiopian authorities have accused archrival Eritrea of supporting the Ogaden separatists. The Eritreans have denied the accusation.
Formed in 1984, the ONLF is fighting for the independence of ethnic Somalis in Ogaden, who they say have been marginalised by Addis Ababa.