An international human rights organization Thursday accused the Ethiopian military of committing widespread murder, rape, and torture against the Anuak people of southwestern Ethiopia.

Human Rights Watch researcher Chris Albin-Lackey told reporters in Nairobi his organization had decided to travel to the Gambella region of Ethiopia last year to investigate complaints that the Ethiopian military had abused members of the Anuak ethnic group living there.

In its report released Thursday, the organization said reports of abuse started surfacing after a December 2003 massacre in Gambella in which Ethiopian soldiers and highlander civilians killed more than 400 Anuak civilians.

Chris Albin-Lackey
Mr. Albin-Lackey said the massacre was the first time the military had become involved in the fighting amongst the Anuaks, Nuers, and other ethnic groups, and highlanders, people who have settled in Gambella from other parts of Ethiopia.

Since then, the report said, the military had raided Anuak neighborhoods and villages throughout the region during 2004, destroying more than 1,000 homes and committing many atrocities.

"In the 19 communities that we surveyed alone, at least 100 Anuak civilians have been killed by Ethiopian military personnel since the December massacres," Mr. Albin-Lackey said. "Ethiopian military personnel have also committed widespread acts of rape throughout Gambella. Perhaps the most widespread form of abuse is the routine targeting of Anuak men for beatings, beatings often brutal enough that they rise to the level of torture."

The report said the military began its operations initially to root out armed Anuak groups that were believed to have carried out brutal attacks against highlanders. But all Anuaks have now become a target for military abuse, which Mr. Albin-Lackey called "crimes against humanity."

The New York-based organization blasted the Ethiopian government for ignoring evidence that the military was involved in the massacre and subsequent abuses, and said the exact involvement of the government is unclear.

"But it is quite clear at the very least that the government has authorized the military to use tactics that could only be expected to result in a human rights disaster, and it has done nothing to try to stop ongoing abuses," he said. "Aside from a half-hearted effort to investigate the December 13 massacre, the Ethiopian government has done nothing to investigate ongoing military abuses, or take in any obvious action to stop them from being committed."

The organization urged the Ethiopian government to order the military to stop the abuses and to investigate and prosecute those soldiers found to have committed the violations.

The spokesman for Ethiopia's Ministry of Information, Zemedkun Tekle, told VOA his government has already investigated the military's involvement in the 2003 massacre.

Mr. Tekle said the Ministry of Federal Affairs released a report recently naming six soldiers who had participated in the violence. He said the soldiers have since been tried and convicted of their crimes.

"The government has tried to do its level best - and it has done - to bring those who are responsible to justice. And the issue of solving the violence in Gambella has been already been settled," he said.

Mr. Tekle said the military's job is to protect - not harm - all people in Ethiopia and that there is no organized plan for the military to abuse the Anuak.

"I'm very much surprised why this issue of Gambella has come to be a topic at this present time, because there is not any problem there," he said. " We know that everything is calm there. There is not any violence there."

Mr. Tekle said the Ethiopian government has publicly declared its commitment to bring to justice all soldiers responsible for past violence in Gambella.