A United Nations fact-finding mission is in Ethiopia's restive Ogaden region to assess the food, water and health needs of civilians caught amid a military campaign against local separatist rebels. Human rights groups accuse the government of committing serious human rights violations against the civilians. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu recently spoke to several eyewitnesses from the Ogaden region whose accounts of abuse conflict with Ethiopian government assurances that civilians are not being targeted in its crackdown on the rebels.    

The eyewitnesses from the Ogaden region say they are ordinary people with no ties to the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), the ethnic Somali separatist group the government in Addis Ababa has been fighting since the mid-1980s.

The eyewitnesses are living in exile now, after barely escaping what they say is a brutal government crackdown.  They say Ethiopian troops are punishing entire villages and towns in an effort to wipe out the ONLF insurgency once and for all.

The Ogadenis agreed to speak on the condition that VOA does not reveal their full names.  They say they fear government agents from Addis Ababa may find them and kill them, or members of their family still in the Ogaden, for revealing what they have seen and experienced.

College student Ahmed, 27, recalls the day, nearly three months ago, when several dozen Ethiopian troops arrived near his village, 250 kilometers northwest of the town of Dhagahbur.

Ahmed acknowledges that ONLF fighters, believed to number several thousand, sometimes hide in villages, after conducting hit-and-run attacks on the Ethiopian military.

Ahmed says that day in June, he saw soldiers setting fire to everything until his village and other villages nearby were reduced to ashes.  He says the soldiers then gave everyone an ultimatum: leave the area within five days.  Anyone who stayed would be killed.

Ahmed obeyed the order and fled into the bush, but he says many others refused to leave. 

Ahmed says the soldiers punished the defiant villagers, killing the men, beating and raping the women, and slaughtering their livestock.  He says he later helped collect the bodies for burial.   

In another interview, Nur, 23, says he worries constantly about his mother and several other family members he has not seen since mid-June. 

He says that was when Ethiopian soldiers accused them of being ONLF supporters and took them away to a military barrack to be interrogated.

Around the same time, Nur says he too, was arrested on similar charges and interrogated with about a half a dozen other men.

Nur says during the interrogation, they watched as Ethiopian soldiers killed four of the men by strangling them with sharp metal wires.  Nur says the soldiers used so much force the wires cut open their throats.  The soldiers warned Nur that the same fate awaited anyone who supported and aided the ONLF.

VOA has not been able to independently verify these accounts. But human rights groups say similar reports of murder, rape, torture, and other serious violations against civilians in the Ogaden have risen sharply since Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi launched the military campaign nearly three months ago.

In April, suspected ONLF rebels attacked a Chinese-run oil field in the Ogaden and killed 74 people, including dozens of Ethiopian guards. 

That incident is widely believed to have triggered the crackdown against the ONLF, which has also included food and trade blockades in the remote southern region.   

Human rights groups say the blockades are causing hunger and widespread civilian suffering. The Ethiopian government defends the blockades as a way to stop weapons from reaching the rebels. 

Addis Ababa calls the ONLF a terror group and says it is being armed and funded by Ethiopia's archrival in the Horn of Africa, Eritrea.

The director of the London-based Center for Development Research and Advocacy, Farah Abdulsamed Farah, says his group has investigated human rights abuse allegations in the Ogaden many times before.

But he says what is happening there now is far beyond mere allegations.  He accuses Prime Minister Meles' ethnically Tigrayan-dominated regime of attempting to wipe out the entire Somali population in the Ogaden.

"This campaign has been conducted in a wrong way to punish the people," he said.  "There is no assistance or logistics Ogaden [people] can provide to the ONLF.  The reason behind targeting the civilians is race, 'You are an Ogaden, the ONLF is Ogaden.  I have to kill you.'  It has the same scale of crisis, which we consider genocide."

The senior advisor to Prime Minister Meles, Bereket Simon, says nothing can be farther from the truth.

"This is a far-fetched story circulated by the human rights organizations," he said.  "There is no genocide. There is no attack on civilians, any crime whatsoever. We have singled out the terrorists and we are not attacking civilians. The civilians are on our side, so simply this is an outrageous accusation."

The weeklong U.N. fact-finding mission that began on Thursday is primarily focused on assessing the food, water and health needs of civilians in the Ogaden.

But the mission is also under enormous pressure to begin investigating war crimes and genocide allegations against the Ethiopian government and its military.