Ethiopia has denied the International Committee of the Red Cross permission to resume humanitarian operations in the restive Ogaden region. ICRC workers were expelled from the Ogaden nearly four years ago for allegedly aiding members of a separatist group, a charge they strongly deny.
ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger says talks with Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi yielded no progress on the organization's return to the eastern Ogaden region.
"I had bilateral talks yesterday. And it will not be possible in the very near future for us to go back to the Ogaden region," Kellenberger said. "That's the message I got."
Ethiopia ordered ICRC staff out of the mostly ethnic Somali region in July, 2007, accusing humanitarian workers of siding with rebels of the outlawed Ogaden National Liberation Front. The ICRC rejected the charges.
Ethiopia limits access to the Ogaden by journalists and humanitarian groups. But a recent US State Department human rights report suggests food and medicine deliveries are restricted in the conflict zone, as pro-government forces wage a counterinsurgency operation against increasingly violent ONLF rebels.
The challenge to humanitarian groups is compounded by a severe drought. The UN World Food Program estimates nearly eight-and-a-half million people are in need of food aid over a wide swath of the Horn of Africa, including southern and southeastern Ethiopia, as well as parts of neighboring Somalia and Kenya.
Kellenberger says the ICRC focuses its Somalia operation mainly on the parched south and central region that is the stronghold of the al-Qaida-linked extremist group al-Shabab. He admits it is hard to monitor food and water deliveries to ensure the aid is not being used to benefit al-Shabab.
"Somalia is a very difficult context because to a large extent, it is what you call in humanitarian language a remote control operation," he said. "For security reasons it's very difficult to have expatriates on the ground on a permanent basis, so what they can do at the maximum is go in and out, so we do rely to a large extent on Somali ICRC staff, and we rely on the Somali Red Crescent."
Kellenberger's agenda in Addis Ababa included briefing the African Union Peace and Security Council on ICRC operations. He says six of the 12 largest ICRC missions are in AU countries, including Libya, particularly its embattled city Misrata.
"The ICRC is trying to work on both sides, on the side controlled by the TNC but also on the side controlled by the government in Tripoli. In recent times we've had a special focus on Misrata. It's still difficult for us to have an overall assessment," Kellenger explained. "Because we could visit part of the city but could not make an overall assessment."
Kellenberger says ICRC activities in Libya include evacuating migrant workers and people critically wounded in fighting, as well as visiting detainees being held by the rebel Transitional National Council. He said negotiations have not been completed with the Tripoli government to visit detainees they hold.