Ethiopian officials say a Somali-born American citizen is being detained as an enemy combatant in the East African nation's restive Ogaden region. The acknowledgment counters earlier government claims that many westerners have been detained as combatants. VOA's Peter Heinlein reports from the southeastern Ethiopian city of Jijiga.
The security chief in Ethiopia's Somali region, commonly known as the Ogaden, says one U.S. citizen has been jailed for more than a year at Jijiga, the regional capital. Security director Abdi Mohamed Omar identified the suspect as Mohamed Farah Hassan, an ethnic Somali born in the town of Kebridehar, 350 kilometers southeast of Jijiga.
Last Friday, the regional president, Abdullahi Hassan, told a group of visiting journalists 'many' U.S. and European passport holders were being detained as enemy combatants. But when pressed for details, security chief Abdi said Mohamed Farah Hassan is the only one he knows of.
Speaking to VOA through a translator, Abdi described the detainee as a terrorist 'mastermind' of the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front, which is fighting for independence for the mostly-Muslim region of predominantly Christian Ethiopia.
"There is one person that they call Mohammmed Farah Hassan, originally he is [from] Ogaden, born in Kebridehar, he left from Somalia, went as a refugee Somali (Somali refugee), he lied so he could get American citizenship," said Abdi. "He was one of the top executives for the ONLF group. When he came here, we caught him in the act. He was deliberately setting up, to blow up different kind of places. That was the reason we caught him."
Abdi says the suspect has not seen American consular officials, but has been provided a lawyer and will be tried on terrorism charges.
Darragh Paradiso, spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa, says diplomats had seen earlier news reports that Americans were being detained, and are looking into the issue.
The conflict in the Ogaden region captured international media attention last April, when ONLF fighters overran a Chinese-run oil exploration facility east of Jijiga. More than 70 people were killed in the attack.
The government and the ONLF accuse each other of serious human rights abuses. Visiting journalists found a traumatized population caught between rebels staging hit-and-run attacks and government troops conducting a brutal counterinsurgency campaign.
Security chief Abdi Mohammed Omar told VOA the rebels had killed 200 civilians over the past two months. Journalists also heard numerous credible reports of young men being picked up by security forces and their bodies being handed over to relatives the following day.
In a related development, international aid agencies have been monitoring reports of a growing humanitarian crisis in the Ogaden. United Nations emergency aid chief John Holmes said after a visit in November that the fighting had created 'potentially serious' humanitarian conditions. Ethiopian officials admit security concerns have delayed the movement of food to remote areas, but say there is no crisis.
In a statement sent to news agencies last Friday, the rebels accused the U.N. and international donors of allowing Ethiopia to manipulate food aid to further its objectives. The statement said Ethiopia is hoarding the food in military camps and using it to buy loyalty from the local population. Regional officials call the ONLF charges 'ridiculous', and have accused several international aid agencies of providing assistance to the rebels.
Last month, Ethiopia expelled an Australian and a Briton working for the charity Save the Children U.K. Several aid organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders, were expelled from the region last July after Ethiopia accused them of providing communications and transportation facilities to the rebels. The agencies staunchly denied the allegations.