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Ethiopia Orders Red Cross to Leave Ogaden Region

The International Committee of the Red Cross says it is still trying to confirm media reports that the Ethiopian government has issued an order for the Red Cross to leave the restive Ogaden region in eastern Ethiopia within one week. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu reports from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi that tensions between the Ethiopian government and international humanitarian groups that allege the Ethiopian military is blocking food aid to rebel-held areas in the Ogaden and committing war crimes there.

The spokeswoman for the ICRC in London, Leila Blacking, tells VOA that the organization is in talks with Ethiopian officials to determine who issued the eviction order.

On Tuesday, the Associated Press said the vice president of the Ogaden region, Jama Ahmed, told the news agency that the government has ordered the Red Cross to leave the region within seven days because its workers were siding politically with local rebels.

The ICRC says it is unclear if the vice president was referring to an order issued by the regional government or the central government in Addis Ababa, which recently launched a military campaign in the country's volatile east to wipe out rebels belonging to the Ogaden National Liberation Front.

"We are still in discussion with the central authorities. So, until those discussions are over, we will not know what is happening," Blacking said.

Blacking says accusations that Red Cross workers in the Ogaden are collaborating with rebels are unfounded. She strongly defended the work that they have been performing in the region for more than a decade.

"Our activities in that part of Ethiopia, in the Somali region, are water activities and some advice for veterinary," Blacking said. "Because of the area we work in, sometimes that necessitates that we have contact with all different sides to the conflict. When we are working in these remote, rural areas, you can come across anybody and you obviously have to deal with them to make sure that you get the access to where you need to go. But certainly, that is always with complete neutrality and we work in full transparency."

Ethiopia's Ogaden region is a vast, oil-rich, but impoverished area, which shares a long and porous border with Somalia. Most of the people in the Ogaden are ethnic Somalis, who support the rebels' 20-year-long fight for independence from Addis Ababa.

Addis Ababa says the ONLF rebels are terrorists funded by Ethiopia's arch rival in the Horn, Eritrea. In April, the ONLF killed more than 70 people, mostly Ethiopian guards, during a raid on a Chinese-run oil field in the Ogaden.

In recent weeks, western diplomats and humanitarian organizations have severely criticized Ethiopia's nearly two-month-long crackdown against the Ogaden rebels - a campaign which they say has included blockading critical food shipments to hundreds of thousands of people.

The U.N.'s World Food Program spokesman in Nairobi, Kenya, Peter Smerdon, says Ethiopia is allowing WFP to distribute food in three zones. But he says restrictions on trade and movement are hampering food deliveries.

On Monday, the ONLF asked the United Nations to launch an investigation into reports that the Ethiopian military and its proxy militias are committing human right abuses against civilians in the Ogaden.