United Nations humanitarian aid chief John Holmes has returned from a visit to Ethiopia's restive Ogaden region, saying he heard allegations of serious human rights abuses. But as we hear from VOA's Peter Heinlein in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's prime minister has denied reports of widespread rights violations by government troops.

U.N. Undersecretary General John Holmes says he went to Ethiopia's troubled Ogaden this week to underscore the world body's concern for the plight of the hundreds of thousands of people living there without access to adequate food or medicines. He described as "potentially serious" the conditions caused by fierce fighting between government troops and rebels of the Ogaden National Liberation Front. But he said he does not believe the situation is catastrophic.

Holmes did, however, say he had heard allegations of serious human rights violations by both sides.

An Associated Press correspondent traveling with Holmes reported speaking to local residents who said government troops had burned down two villages near the city of Kebridehar last Friday, killing one man. Holmes said he, too, had heard the allegations.

"They are clearly serious allegations, and they are coming not from just one source, so they need to be looked at carefully, they need to be taken seriously and if possible they need to be investigated openly and independently," said John Holmes. "And that is the course I recommended to the government in all the meetings I had today."

Holmes said he had come away from a meeting with Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi convinced that Mr. Meles is taking seriously the allegations of human rights abuses.

Mr. Meles admitted to reporters there have probably been cases of rights violations by government troops. But he denied suggestions they are widespread or systematic.

Claims of heavy fighting and human rights violations have been hard to verify in the remote southeastern region of Ethiopia where thousands of armed O.N.L.F. rebels are fighting for independence from Addis Ababa. A government crackdown on the rebels began earlier this year after O.N.L.F. gunmen attacked a Chinese-run oil installation, killing at least 70 people.

After that incident, Ethiopia barred most foreigners, including journalists and many humanitarian agencies from the region. But in recent weeks, amid reports of increasing food shortages, the government has allowed 19 non-governmental organizations to return.

The O.N.L.F. is demanding greater autonomy for the arid region bordering Somalia. Ethiopia accuses arch rival Eritrea of backing the Ogaden separatists, and of fueling unrest in other parts of the country. Eritrea has repeatedly denied the claim.