Washington's top diplomat on African issues says regional leaders must do more to ease simmering tensions in the Horn of Africa. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer made the comment after leading a team of senior U.S. officials on a tour of Ethiopia's tense Ogaden region bordering Somalia. VOA's Peter Heinlein reports from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
Assistant Secretary Frazer held talks in Addis Saturday with Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and African Union chairman Alpha Omar Konare. A day earlier she and President Bush's Special Assistant for Africa Bobby Pittman made a whirlwind tour of the vast Ogaden region of southeastern Ethiopia, where government forces have launched a military crackdown against rebel groups.
They met there with community elders and local officials
Conflict has been raging in the region bordering Somalia since April, when insurgents belonging to the Ogaden National Liberation Front, or O.N.L.F., attacked a Chinese-run oil drilling team, killing more than 70 people.
In recent weeks, international aid agencies have accused Ethiopia of denying humanitarian workers access to the region, where civilian casualties are said to be heavy. The rebels say government troops are imposing an economic blockade, creating a man-made famine. The Ethiopian government strongly denies the charges.
At a news conference in Addis Ababa Saturday, Frazer described the allegations as 'unsubstantiated'. But she said she had urged Ethiopian leaders to avoid casualties and human rights violations.
She said efforts to investigate the charges, and to ensure adequate supplies to needy civilians are complicated by the rebels' links to warring factions in neighboring Somalia.
"Part of the challenge is that the chaos, I shouldn't call it chaos, but fighting taking place in Somalia has disrupted that market, the rice and products that normally come into the Ogaden have been disrupted by the situation in Somalia itself," said Frazer. "In addition to that, there are those extremists, insurgents who have tried to make a link with the ONLF and they are trying to, the ONLF is trying to get contraband in through those trade routes. Weapons, arms trafficking is taking place with the same trucks bringing in rice."
Frazer also said she sees no early withdrawal of Ethiopian troops from Somalia. She said she had spoken with African Union chairman Konare about how to get more African Union peacekeepers to replace the thousands of Ethiopian troops sent to Somalia last year to oust Islamic extremists who had taken control in Mogadishu.
The current A.U. mission in Somalia lacks resources and is badly understaffed. Only about 1,600 of the promised 8,000 A.U. personnel have been deployed. The U.S. Congress has authorized $40-million to help fund the A.U. mission, and is training a contingent of Burundian troops. But Frazer says Washington continues to be frustrated by the apparent unwillingness of African countries to contribute more manpower.
"Ethiopia has said from the outset it wants to withdraw. The international community has said, don't withdraw until you can be replaced by A.U. troops, and no one has changed that message to Ethiopia," she continued. "So we've been disappointed by how slow [is] the process of getting African Union troops in. I said by October 15th we will have completed our training of Burundian forces. The deployment date of the Burundian forces is something that Burundi will have to decide."
Frazer says cooperation among states in the region is the key to bringing stability to the Horn of Africa.
"I think the United States are working very well with the regional partners, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Yemen and other countries, and that is going to be the answer to the crisis is the cooperation of the regional countries themselves together, and obviously this issue of insurgency is one that continues to trouble me and Africa as a whole," added Frazer. "The way forward is development and legitimate opposition, not through picking up arms and insurgency and it's a message the A.U. needs to make much more loudly to its member states."
Secretary Frazer is to continue her diplomatic efforts at a meeting of the International Contact Group on Somalia next week in Italy.