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US Denies Silence on Rights Abuses in Ethiopia

The United States said Thursday it has "persistently" expressed concern about human rights in Ethiopia with top officials in Addis Ababa, including alleged abuses in the Ogaden region. The comments follow an assertion by the monitoring group Human Rights Watch that the United States and key European countries have been silent on Ogaden rights violations. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The State Department says it is giving the Human Rights Watch report on the Ogaden careful study but it is rejecting out-of-hand the report's assertion of U.S. silence on Ethiopian human rights.

The New York based monitoring group said in a report issued Thursday in Nairobi that in its battle with rebels in the eastern Ogaden region, the Ethiopian army has subjected civilians to executions torture and rape, and that the violence has added to a humanitarian crisis in the region.

The report, which also accuses the rebels of the ONLF, the Ogaden National Liberation Front, of serious violations, charges key aid donors to Ethiopia - the United States, Britain and the European Union - with remaining silent on Ogaden abuses.

It says the United States, viewing Ethiopia as a key anti-terrorism partner, has failed to use its leverage with Addis Ababa including military aid, to press for an end to the crimes.

At a news briefing, acting State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said the United States takes all allegations of human rights violations seriously and "strongly rejects" the Human Rights Watch contention that it has minimized or ignored Ethiopian abuses.

In the Ogaden, he said non-governmental groups have reported that both the government and ONLF have been responsible for abuses and "harsh techniques" to intimidate the civilian population.

The spokesman said that since the resurgence of Ogaden violence a year ago, the United States - both independently and in concert with others - has pushed for an end to rights abuses:

"Since May 2007, the U.S. government has collaborated closely with international organizations, NGOs and other donors, to develop a concerted approach to the Ethiopian government, urging it to mitigate the humanitarian and human rights impact of its counter-insurgency operations in the Ogaden region. Our ambassador in Ethiopia has persistently raised concerns over human rights abuses at the highest level of the Ethiopian government, as have senior U.S. government visitors to Addis Ababa," he said.

At the roll-out of the report in the Kenyan capital, Human Rights Watch investigator Peter Bouchard said U.S. military and aid personnel have been active in the Ogaden region and should have first-hand human rights information, not just accounts gleaned from humanitarian groups:

"There certainly is a presence. As far as we know U.S. forces were not directly involved or implicated in the abuses documented in our report. But on the other hand, we also know that the U.S. government has sent assessment teams, including from the USAID, to the region, that they have the information available to them about the seriousness of some of the abuses committed in the Ogaden," he said.

Ogaden fighting has been under way for two decades but intensified last year, when the government launched an offensive to pursue rebels who attacked a Chinese-run oil field there and killed more than 70 people.

A Human Rights Watch official said in Nairobi the renewed conflict has been largely hidden by a "a conspiracy of silence" by Ethiopia's main international backers.