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Rebels Say Ethiopia Blocks Aid in Drought-Hit Region

A rebel group in Ethiopia's arid Somali region has issued an urgent appeal for humanitarian assistance, accusing the government of blocking aid deliveries.

The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) insurgent group says people and livestock are dying in Ethiopia's Somali region as drought conditions deteriorate across the Horn of Africa.

An email sent to news organizations says food and water shortages are worse in rebel strongholds because the government has imposed an embargo on the delivery of humanitarian aid.

The email accuses Ethiopia of bullying the United Nations and humanitarian agencies into silence about the severity of the crisis, and accuses international aid donors of ignoring the plight of the Ogaden people. The message says government forces are preventing UN staff from going beyond regional centers to verify aid deliveries.

Allegations that aid is being blocked could not be independently verified, as access to the troubled region is restricted. Phone calls to government spokesmen Friday seeking comment were not answered.

But humanitarian groups reacted sharply to the ONLF allegations. UN World Food Program spokeswoman in Ethiopia, Susannah Nicol, says safeguards are in place to ensure aid reaches the neediest.

"There have been security incidents in the past," said Nicol. "Therefore, what we're trying to do is make sure the food is directed towards the areas and the most vulnerable people. WFP has expanded its system of monitoring. So we are confident the food is getting through to those who most need it. Any allegations that food is not reaching people are taken very seriously and investigated".

Vincent Lelei, head of the UN humanitarian agency OCHA office in Ethiopia says aid groups have a clear picture of conditions in the drought-affected region.

"I'm not aware of the document referred to as having been mentioned by an organization named ONLF," said Lelei. "What I know is that the humanitarian community is aware of the drought and has been working with the government very intensively. We have been trucking water in several places. We have done assessments in the field on the immediate life-saving interventions required."

The ONLF has been fighting for more than 25 years for the Somali region's independence from Ethiopia. Ethiopia considers the ONLF a terrorist organization with ties to the Muslim extremist group al-Shabab in neighboring Somalia, which in turn has links with al-Qaida.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi last week said he sees Muslim extremism as the biggest threat to stability in the Horn of Africa.