By ELIZABETH A. KENNEDY,Associated Press Writer
Ethiopia’s government is committing war crimes in its military campaign against rebels in the Ogaden region, a rights group charged Thursday in a report that complained the U.S. and other Western governments willfully ignored abuses.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said Ethiopian troops are beating and strangling civilians, staging public executions and burning villages in Ogaden. It said the allegations were based on more than 100 eyewitness accounts.
An Ethiopian official denied the charges.
A State Department spokesman, Gonzalo Gallegos, said officials had not seen the report. He declined to comment generally about the insurgency in the Ogaden.
Washington looks to Ethiopia for help in the fight against Islamic extremists in East Africa, where al-Qaida has claimed responsibility for several attacks, including the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 225 people. Ethiopia is helping the U.N.-backed government in neighboring Somalia against Muslim insurgents.
« The silence of the U.S. government is not a silence based on ignorance, » said Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. « They are ignoring the information available to them. »
Ethnic Somalis have been fighting for more than a decade seeking greater autonomy in the desolate Ogaden, which is being explored for oil and gas. Ethiopian forces stepped up operations after rebels attacked a Chinese-run oil exploration field in April 2007, killing 74 people.
« The Ethiopian army’s answer to the rebels has been to viciously attack civilians in the Ogaden, » said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director for Human Rights Watch.
The group also said the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front has violated humanitarian law by conducting the oil attack and by setting land mines along roads. Ethiopia accuses the rebels of being financed by its archenemy, Eritrea.
Bereket Simon, special adviser to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, denied all allegations in the report.
« It’s not true, » he said. « It’s the same old fabrication. »
Asked whether an internal investigation was planned, he said: « How can we investigate lies and innuendoes? How can we try to disprove lies by investigating? »
Gagnon chided Ethiopia’s leading donors, including the United States, Britain and the European Union, accusing them of ignoring what is happening in Ogaden.
« These widespread and systematic atrocities amount to crimes against humanity, » she said. « Yet Ethiopia’s major donors, Washington, London and Brussels, seem to be maintaining a conspiracy of silence around the crimes. »
Gagnon said Western governments and institutions give at least $2 billion in aid to Ethiopia every year.
« Influential states use many excuses, such as lack of information and strategic priorities, to downplay the grave human rights concerns in Somali Region, » she said. « But crimes against humanity can’t be swept under the carpet. »