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Ethiopia Challenges Rights Group on Ogaden War Crimes Allegations

Ethiopia is challenging a Human Rights Watch report that accuses Ethiopian soldiers of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity during a counterinsurgency campaign in its eastern Somali region. As we hear from correspondent Peter Heinlein in Addis Ababa, a team of Ethiopian investigators has issued a counter report charging the U.S.-based rights group with making false allegations based on flawed methods.

The 47-page document issued by Ethiopia's foreign ministry Wednesday is a reply to a 136-page report released by Human Rights Watch last June.

The initial report is titled, "Collective Punishment: Crimes Against Humanity in Ethiopia's Somali Region". It accused Ethiopia's counterinsurgency forces in the Somali, or Ogaden region of a variety of war crimes, including torture and arbitrary executions of suspected members or sympathizers of the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front, and burning villages suspected of harboring insurgents. The Human Rights Watch report was based on interviews with hundreds of people who had fled the region, backed up by satellite imagery of destroyed villages.

But a government-appointed team of investigators led by independent consultant Lissane Yohannes rejected the Human Rights Watch findings. They issued a response titled: Flawed Methodology, Unsubstantiated Allegations." A video shown to journalists at a briefing Wednesday quoted commission members as saying villagers whom they interviewed flatly contradicted the Human Rights Watch conclusions.

"We visited all relevant areas and nearly all the villages Human Rights Watch mentioned by name. We met with people who could tell us they had not been killed or raped, as Human Rights Watch alleged," says an announcer. "We saw villages that had not been burned to the ground, as Human Rights Watch claimed."

Ethiopian foreign ministry legal adviser Minelik Alemu mocked the Human Rights Watch's report, saying it contains inflammatory language. He also criticized the rights' groups' investigative techniques, which did not include visits to the Ogaden region.

"In light of the gravity of the allegations of crimes against humanity, we would have thought more serious investigation would have been called for," Minelik Alemu said. "But that was not done. If you look at the report, you would see it is based on the testimonies that it collected mainly through telephone. They never had any on the ground visit to the region."

One of the authors of the Human Rights Watch report, senior researcher Leslie Lefkow told VOA in a phone interview that the group had several times submitted written requests to Ethiopia to visit the Ogaden during their investigation. She says there was no government response.

"In terms of our methodology, we stand by it 100 percent, and we would welcome a discussion with the Ethiopian government about the specific cases we mentioned," she said. "We did request access to Somali region several times formally by letter."

Lefkow said she would welcome the opportunity to discuss with Ethiopian experts the contradictions between the two reports.

"We have been carrying out research into situations of conflict for many years, and these kinds of allegations that we've been duped by a rebel movement, it's not the first time we hear this," she said. "These are sort of standard government responses. And we are trained investigators. And then we corroborate the information through independent sources, and in this case including through the use of satellite imagery, where we were trying to verify that attacks on certain villages had actually taken place."

Lefkow said she had not finished reading the Ethiopian report, but said she saw hope in Ethiopia's willingness to conduct an investigation. She said it was one of the first times in her long career in human rights activist that a country had taken the opportunity to issue a counter report.

She said she would again try to contact officials in Addis and in the Ogaden region to discuss Human Rights Watch's continuing concerns about the conduct of Ethiopia's counterinsurgency campaign in the Ogaden.