A U.S.-based human rights group is accusing the Ethiopian government of widespread abuses as it cracks down on a rebel group in its southeastern Ogaden region. Nick Wadhams reports from our East Africa bureau in Nairobi.
New York-based Human Rights Watch says Ethiopian troops have burned villages and shot civilians in its campaign against the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front.
The group says Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government is blocking food shipments to the Ogaden region. The rights group says there is also evidence the government is trying to force people from rural areas to large towns to deny support for the rebels.
Tom Porteous of Human Rights Watch says 5,000 people may have been displaced.
"Obviously, it is very difficult to get access to the whole area, but the reports that we are getting, suggest that it is a very serious escalation and that large numbers of civilians - we are talking about thousands - have been displaced. And we are talking about tens or scores having been killed, and another problem of course is that the Ethiopians seem to be trying to impose a trade blockade on the whole area and this is leading to serious economic consequences for the civilian population," said Porteous.
According to Human Rights Watch, some of the worst abuses have occurred near the towns of Degehabur and Kebri Dehar, in areas where support for the rebels is believed to be high.
The rebel movement, known by its initials ONLF, was founded in 1984 and advocates independence for southeastern Ethiopia. The desert region borders Somalia and is said to contain large petroleum reserves. The group accuses the government of discriminating against the region's people, who are mostly Somali-speaking camel herders and nomads.
The rebels made international headlines in April when they attacked a Chinese oil facility in the Ogaden and reportedly killed 74 people. The ONLF accused the Chinese of entering into an illegal contract with the Ethiopian government.
Government officials refused to comment on the Human Rights Watch report. In June, Prime Minister Meles announced he was launching a campaign to wipe out the ONLF.
Human Rights Watch also accused the rebels of rights violations. It says the rebels target civilians who refused to support them. According to the group, innocent people have been trapped between the two sides.
The report calls for the government and the rebels to respect international law and take all possible steps to avoid civilian casualties.
Human Rights Watch released the report a day after the ONLF announced that its forces had killed 43 Ethiopian soldiers and captured 35 in an ambush Monday. The rebel group said five of its fighters were killed.
The ONLF says it has killed a total of 247 government troops and captured 58 in the past three weeks.
VOA was unable to reach Ethiopian officials for comment. But the special adviser to Prime Minister Meles, Bereket Simon, told the Associated Press that the ONLF announcement is false, calling it a ploy for media attention.
Ethiopia says the ONLF is a terrorist group backed by its regional arch-rival, Eritrea.