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Ethiopia, UN Mount Joint Search Operation for Kidnapped Aid Workers

Ethiopia and U.N. security agencies have launched a search for two aid workers apparently kidnapped in an ambush in the insurgency-wracked Ogaden region. One other worker was killed in the incident and a fourth was wounded.

Details of the incident are sketchy. Officials of the U.N. World Food Program say two of their vehicles were ambushed by unknown gunmen Friday in the remote Somali region of Eastern Ethiopia, also known as the Ogaden.

The region is home to a violent separatist group known as the Ogaden National Liberation Front, which is fighting for independence from Ethiopia.

Officials say four local WFP employees were aboard the two Land Cruisers when they were attacked along the road between the main town of Jijiga and the Fiq zone, an area of heavy rebel activity about 175 kilometers to the south.

The incident occurred while the men were on a mission to monitor food aid distribution in the drought-stricken region.

WFP spokesman Judith Schuler says the attackers killed one driver, identified as Farhan Hamsa, and wounded the other driver. They apparently then took the two aid monitors hostage before setting their vehicles on fire.

“Two vehicles were burned down, said Schuler. "One staff member was killed by bullets, and the other one got rescued, but we do not have information how that happened.”

Schuler says a joint operation is underway by Ethiopian and UN security agencies to locate the two missing aid workers.

"The local authorities together with WFP and the U.N. system in Ethiopia are doing their utmost to find them as soon as possible, but we do not know how fast these searches are going to progress," added Schuler.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack. Ethiopia's government spokesman Shimelis Kemal Sunday said he was still awaiting word from the region about details of the incident.

The Ogaden rebels, meanwhile, issued a statement condemning what they called the "cowardly and cold-blooded attack". The ONLF statement sent to journalists by email says the ambush was the work of Ethiopian security forces attempting to make it look like a rebel terrorist attack. Ethiopian officials have in the past scoffed at such allegations.

The dead driver, Farhan Hamsa, is the second WFP employee to be killed in East Africa in less than a month. A senior program assistant was killed in a similar incident April 22nd in Southern Sudan when a vehicle he was travelling in was attacked.

Ethiopia’s largely pastoralist Ogaden, along its eastern border with Somalia, is currently in the grip of a severe drought threatening the lives of livestock and people. The government last month increased its estimate of the number of people needing emergency assistance in the Somali region to 1.3 million, or more than 25 percent of the population.

Ethiopia, caught off guard by the sudden onset of the current drought, this month was forced to reduce the size of emergency rations to many of the country’s 3.2 million food aid recipients. But the Somali region was exempted from the cutbacks due to the severity of the drought there.

Ethiopia sharply restricts journalists and humanitarian aid workers access to the Ogaden conflict zone, where a counterinsurgency operation is in progress. Human-rights and aid groups have accused both the ONLF and pro-government forces with numerous rights violations, charges both sides have denied.

Last month, Ethiopia refused permission to the International Committee of the Red Cross to resume operations in the Ogaden. ICRC workers were expelled from the region nearly four years ago for allegedly aiding the rebels, a charge the ICRC denies.