U.S.-based Human Rights Watch says it has collected extensive evidence that confirms allegations the government in Ethiopia is committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in its military campaign to crush the rebel movement in the restive Ogaden region. As VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu reports from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi, the rights group also criticizes western donor nations for remaining silent about the abuses.
The accusations against the Ethiopian government and its military are contained in a 130-page report Human Rights Watch released in Nairobi.
In the first detailed study of what the group calls Ethiopia's year-long scorched-earth policy in the Ogaden, Human Rights Watch says it conducted interviews with more than 100 victims, eyewitnesses, business leaders and regional government officials in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somaliland.
Researcher Georgette Gagnon told reporters the rights group concluded that Ethiopia's army has committed widespread atrocities, using tactics aimed at not only to defeat the rebel group, but to collectively punish communities suspected of helping the rebels.
"In one particularly awful account, a man describes how Ethiopian soldiers would put ropes around the necks of men and pull from each side, strangling them," she said. "They also forcibly relocated many of the civilians in rural areas into larger towns and confined people in military barracks, where they were tortured and beaten on a daily basis. There was also widespread rape of women and other sexual violence carried out by Ethiopian soldiers."
"This brutal campaign of war crimes and crimes against humanity has contributed to a looming humanitarian crisis in the region that threatens the lives of thousands of Somalis in the area. And of course, this campaign is being carried out with complete impunity," she continued.
The Human Rights Watch report includes satellite imagery that the group says confirms accounts of Ethiopian troops destroying villages. Gagnon says Ethiopia is also waging an economic war against Ogaden's ethnic-Somali population, imposing a blockade on trade, confiscating livestock, and denying them access to humanitarian assistance.
Although much of the report focuses on alleged abuses committed by Ethiopia, Human Rights Watch says the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front is also responsible for serious human rights violations. They include killing suspected government collaborators and indiscriminately mining roads used by government convoys.
In an interview with VOA, the head of the Ogaden National Liberation Front's Foreign Relations Bureau in London, Abdirahman Mahdi vehemently denied that the group carries out executions of civilians.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government in Addis Ababa did not issue an immediate response to the report, but it has repeatedly said that the allegations against its military in the Ogaden were false propaganda being spread by Ethiopia's enemies.
Gagnon says Human Rights Watch stands by the report.
"Meles Zenawi said in September, 2007 in an interview, 'We are supposed to have burned villages. I can tell you not a single village, and as far as I know, now a single hut, has been burned. Nobody has come up with a shred of evidence, nobody.' Well, this report puts that statement to the test," she said.
Ethnic Somali rebels in the Ogaden have been fighting against Ethiopian rule for more than two decades. But the fighting intensified last year, after the government launched an unprecedented military offensive to pursue rebels who attacked a Chinese-run oil field in the Ogaden and killed more than 70 people.
Since then, the Ethiopian government has maintained a tight military control in the Ogaden and has denied journalists access to much of the region.
Human Rights Watch reserved some of the most scathing criticism for Ethiopia's allies, including the United States, Britain, and the European Union. Gagnon says they have made the crisis in the Ogaden far worse by failing to speak out about Ethiopian abuses in the conflict.
"This conflict has been largely hidden by the willful blindness or the conspiracy of silence of Ethiopia's main donors and their failure to even acknowledge these abuses, let alone condemn them or work to end them," said Gagnon.
Washington supported Ethiopia's 2006 military intervention in neighboring Somalia to oust militant Islamic Courts Union leaders from power and considers Ethiopia a key anti-terror ally in the region. U.S. officials were not immediately available for comment.