NAIROBI (Reuters) - Western donors have failed to condemn war crimes by Ethiopian forces during a year-old campaign against separatist fighters in the country’s eastern Ogaden region, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.
“The Ethiopian army’s answer to the rebels has been to viciously attack civilians in the Ogaden,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director of the U.S.-based group.
“These widespread and systematic atrocities amount to crimes against humanity. Yet Ethiopia’s major donors, Washington, London and Brussels, seem to be maintaining a conspiracy of silence around the crimes.”
Ethiopian government officials in Addis Ababa routinely reject such allegations against their counter-insurgency operations in the rocky, arid region, which borders Somalia.
They also accuse the rebels of abusing locals.
But officials had no immediate comment on the new report.
Ethiopia, a key regional ally of the United States, launched its latest offensive after the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) attacked a Chinese-run oil field in the region in April 2007, killing more than 70 people.
Human Rights Watch said its 130-page report was based on interviews by its researchers with more than 100 victims and eyewitnesses of abuses by soldiers.
Ridwan Sahid told how an Ethiopian soldier pushed him into a ditch and tried to kill him by taking a metal rod used to clean his gun and ramming it down his throat.
When Ridwan fought him off by twisting his fingers, more troops rushed over and tried to strangle him with a rope. Ridwan passed out and woke up later under the cold body of a friend.
One 31-year-old Ogaden shopkeeper told HRW he was arrested and beaten by troops who demanded he admit being an ONLF member.
“They tied both my legs and lifted me upside down to the ceiling with a rope, and kept beating me more, saying I had to confess,” he was quoted as saying.
“For two months, we underwent this same ordeal, being taken from our rooms at night and being beaten and tortured.”
The report also includes accounts of villages being burned by the military, which HRW said it had confirmed using satellite imagery. Witnesses said at least 150 civilians were executed.
HRW said the government was limiting all access to the region, that the violence was ongoing, and that staff believed their findings represented only a fraction of the actual abuses.
Gagnon said the army’s tactics were fuelling a looming humanitarian crisis and threatening the survival of thousands of ethnic Somali nomads who cross the area with their livestock.
Western nations give Ethiopia more than $2 billion a year in aid, she said, but must speak out now to halt the bloodshed.
“The government’s attacks on civilians, its trade blockade, and restrictions on aid amount to the illegal collective punishment of tens of thousands of people,” Gagnon said.
“Unless humanitarian agencies get immediate access to independently assess the needs and monitor food distribution, more lives will be lost.”
Also accused of abuses by its military in Somalia, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has said in the past human rights groups are selectively and falsely attacking him after falling for propaganda by Ethiopia’s enemies.
Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Matthew Tostevin
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