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Human Rights Group Seeks Accounting of Ethiopian Food Aid

An Ethiopian human rights group is demanding that the United States and other international donors monitor the food and financial aid they give to Ethiopia for its impoverished Ogaden region. As Nick Wadhams reports from Nairobi, activists say the government has blocked food aid to the Ogaden as it tries to quash a local rebel group.

The Ogaden Human Rights Committee says Ethiopia's government has sparked a humanitarian crisis in the Ogaden and is asking nations from around the world to contribute aid. But it says they must make sure the donations get to the people who need them most.

Last week, the United States announced it is providing nearly $19 million in food assistance for the Ogaden through the U.N. World Food Program. Some money also will help pay for health, nutrition, and livelihood programs.

Abdukadir Sulub Abdi is the international coordinator for the Ogaden Human Rights Committee. He says more than two million people are suffering from malnutrition because of the military clampdown.

"There is not independent agents or international NGOs who can be trusted for the distribution of the aid. So it is easy to divert and everyone knows that they divert aid," said Abdi. "Many children have starved to death because of this military blockade and there is also a breakout of cholera and other diseases which are related to malnutrition."

Ethiopian government officials deny they are blocking aid, but U.N. officials have privately complained in the past that the Ethiopian government was restricting their ability to deliver aid. Many aid groups working in the Ogaden have had to submit themselves to close monitoring by Ethiopian officials as well.

In July, Ethiopia expelled the International Committee of the Red Cross from the Ogaden region, and before that, the New York-based Human Rights Watch accused Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government of widespread abuses as part of a crackdown on the Ogaden. It said Ethiopian troops had blocked food shipments, burned villages and killed innocent civilians as it pursues the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front.

The rebels advocate 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.

In April, the rebels attacked a Chinese oil facility in the Ogaden and reportedly killed 74 people. The rebels accused the Chinese of entering into an illegal contract with the Ethiopian government. In June, Prime Minister Meles announced he was launching a campaign to wipe out the rebels.

Last week, the rebel group said it welcomed U.N. plans to send a fact-finding mission to the Ogaden and asked that the team not limit itself to humanitarian issues. But U.N. officials said the mission that included staff from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the U.N. refugee agency, and others had already taken place.