November 20, 2007 / 12:29 PM / 11 years ago

Ethiopia denies reports of Ogaden helicopter attacks

ADDIS ABABA, Nov 20 (Reuters) - Ethiopia denied on Tuesday allegations it had used helicopter gun ships to target civilians in its troubled southeastern Ogaden region, where the military is fighting separatist rebels.

The government also said it had started delivering emergency food aid to the ethnically Somali region following United Nations reports that 953,000 people needed assistance.

The desolate region, mainly inhabited by wandering herders, hit the spotlight in April when Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) rebels attacked a Chinese-run oil exploration field and killed 74 people.

The ONLF has accused the government of human rights abuses in its military crackdown on insurgents, alleging this week that government helicopters attacked a number of remote villages in recent days, killing civilians.

"The so-called air and helicopter attacks in the Somali region never happened," Information Ministry spokesman Zemedkun Tekele said.

Ethiopian officials say tales of massive rights violations by its soldiers are a smokescreen to hide atrocities by the rebels against local people.

U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs John Holmes is expected to make a two-day visit to the region bordering Somalia later this month to inspect UN relief operations that began a couple of weeks ago,

Sissaye Tadesse, spokesman for a government relief agency, said Ethiopia had sent trucks carrying food to the region.

"Some 267 trucks were used to move 7,358.3 tonnes of emergency assistance," he said.

He added that 30 trucks of food a day would travel to Ogaden over the next two months until the estimated 17,407 tonnes of food aid needed was delivered.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said on Tuesday that 19 non-governmental organisations had been given permission to work in the Ogaden.

This follows the expulsion from the region of a number of aid agencies, including the International Committee of the Red Cross in July. (Reporting by Tsegaye Tadesse; Editing by Barry Malone)

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