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UN Agency to Resume Ops in Ethiopia’s Ogaden Following Fatal Attack

A woman holds a malnourished child at a camp in the town of Danan, some 600 kilometers South East of Addis Ababa (undated photo)
A woman holds a malnourished child at a camp in the town of Danan, some 600 kilometers South East of Addis Ababa (undated photo)

The UN World Food Program (WFP) is hoping to restart operations within days in Ethiopia’s parched Ogaden region, where nearly one-third of the population is in need of assistance. Aid distribution in the Ogaden was halted after a fatal attack last Friday on a team of WFP workers.

WFP spokesman in Ethiopia Judith Schuler says there should be little or no disruption in food deliveries in the drought-ravaged Somali region, known as the Ogaden.

"It is a question of days, but we are evaluating our security situation and we hope to start as soon as possible our operations in order to bring the food to those who really need it," said Schuler.

The UN humanitarian agency told its more than 100 employees in Ogaden to stop delivering food after gunmen ambushed two WFP vehicles, shot dead one of the drivers, wounded an aid worker, and apparently captured two others. The attack took place on a road south of the region’s main city, Jijiga, in an area where pro-government forces are engaged in a counterinsurgency operation against the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).

Each side blamed the other for last Friday’s ambush. Government spokesman Shimelis Kemal called it an attempt to attract publicity by an ONLF splinter group financed by Ethiopia’s rival Eritrea. The rebels say the workers were attacked by government forces to silence them after they stumbled on evidence of a massacre of local civilians.

It is impossible to verify the conflicting claims because the government restricts access to the conflict zone.

Ethiopia’s disaster relief agency says the largely pastoralist Somali region was one of the hardest hit when rains failed across much of the Horn of Africa in recent months. The sudden onset of drought and a shortage of emergency supplies forced a cutback in the size of the basket of food given to most aid recipients in Ethiopia. But conditions in the Ogaden are deemed so severe that the full ration is being provided whenever possible.

The World Food Program is currently distributing its third round of aid in the region this year, comprising 24,000 metric tons of food. Spokesman Schuler says despite the temporary halt in distribution, measures are being taken to ensure a minimum of disruption in the supply system.

"Everybody is still doing their job," said Schuler. "We are still moving food into the Somali region, to Jijiga, to the main hub in order to be ready to restart distributions to those most in need as soon as we can."

Main population centers such as Jijiga are used as hubs in a unique distribution system known as “hubs and spokes” in the conflict zone. The system allows the WFP to deliver food to distribution points, where it is handed over to the government under the eye of WFP monitors.

The employees attacked last Friday were on a monitoring mission.

The “hubs and spokes” system has been criticized by the rebels and some rights groups, who argue it allows the government to control the distribution of aid in areas suspected of being home to ONLF sympathizers. A statement sent to reporters by a group known as the Ogaden Human Rights Committee this week accuses the government of carrying out a policy of starving the civilian population into submission.

Government spokesman Shimeles rejected the charge, and WFP officials have said they are satisfied that food is reaching needy families in the conflict zone.