Ethiopia’s Ogaden rebels demanded on Friday that the U.N. Security Council secure an aid corridor to their homeland where they said people were starving behind a military blockade.
Since June last year the Ethiopian military has been waging an offensive against separatist guerrillas that has cut off access for most aid workers and journalists to the ethnically Somali region.
“The situation is getting out of hand. Women and children and the elderly are dying from thirst and hunger,” Abdirahman Mahdi, a founding member of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) said in a telephone interview.
“The U.N. Security Council must set up and enforce an aid corridor immediately, with international monitors, because the army is using relief supplies to fuel its campaign.”
Ethiopia’s government, an important U.S. ally in the region, routinely rejects ONLF claims that its forces withhold aid from desperate communities in the drought-stricken east.
The ONLF was formed in 1984 in the ethnically Somali region on Ethiopia’s border with Somalia. Its aims have varied between full-scale independence to joining a “Greater Somalia” to more autonomy within Ethiopia for a region it says is neglected.
Addis Ababa says the rebels are terrorists supported by Horn of Africa rival Eritrea, and points to an ONLF attack on a Chinese-run oil field in April 2007 that killed 74 people.
It says criticism of its tactics in the rocky, arid region is just defamation by “anti-peace” forces.
Mahdi said international officials who had visited Ogaden recently, including U.N. aid chief John Holmes, had underestimated the crisis.
“People are eating roots and grass, animals are dying,” he said. “And at the same time the military campaign is going on. Soldiers are shooting people, beating people, harassing them.”
Holmes said earlier this month special attention should be paid to the region and food deliveries should be speeded up.
In June, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said donors who gave the government more than $2 billion a year in aid needed to speak out against what the group called widespread and systematic atrocities by Ethiopian troops.
HRW accused Western nations including the United States and Britain of maintaining a conspiracy of silence. Addis Ababa said the report was fabricated.
In July, regional government officials in Ogaden accused a Swiss medical charity of spreading hearsay after it stopped work there complaining of repeated obstructions, intimidation and arrests.