By Barry Malone
ADDIS ABABA, Aug 29 (Reuters) – The United Nations plans to send a fact-finding mission to Ethiopia’s Ogaden region where separatist rebels who killed 74 people in an April attack say they are facing the toughest government crackdown in years.
The mission, due to start on Aug. 30, will assess allegations by the rebels and rights groups of human rights abuses as well as the food, water and health needs of Ogaden’s ethnic Somalis.
The remote region bordering Somalia has come under growing scrutiny since the government launched a campaign two months ago to flush out Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) rebels after they carried out one of their bloodiest attacks on a Chinese-run oil exploration field in April.
Rights groups accuse soldiers of shooting civilians, burning homes and seizing livestock in its hunt for the ONLF, which wants more autonomy for the area believed to be rich in oil and gas.
"The information coming from the Somali region since the beginning of the Ethiopian government campaign against the ONLF has been secondhand, and it has been worrying," Paul Hebert, head of the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Ethiopia, told Reuters on Wednesday.
"This is a humanitarian assessment but we will be looking at protection issues, particularly involving women and children."
The 14-person team has received the government’s go-ahead to meet whomever they wish.
But, asked if it would meet ONLF representatives, Hebert said: "We will not be seeking out armed groups."
The ONLF says a trade blockade is choking food supplies and causing starvation in the region inhabited mostly by nomadic herders estimated to number between four to 10 million.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi calls the ONLF terrorists and says they are funded by neighbour and arch-foe Eritrea. He has repeatedly asserted his right to ensure security throughout the vast Horn of Africa country of 81 million.
The ONLF welcomed the mission saying it was a first step to addressing the "manmade humanitarian catastrophe" in Ogaden.
"We call on the United Nations not to limit the scope of this mission to a humanitarian assessment but to include a preliminary investigation of war crimes being committed against our people by the current … regime," it said in a statement.
Local authorities expelled the International Committee of the Red Cross this month, accusing the aid agency, one of the few operating there, of consorting with rebels.
The U.N. mission will include staff from the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and the agencies dealing with child welfare, food and health.