A United Nations report on violence in Ethiopia's Ogaden region has found evidence of "serious violations of human rights" and recommends an independent investigation of the conflict's toll on civilians.
The 23-page report released Wednesday by a fact-finding group says the Ethiopian government and separatist rebels share responsibility for an emerging humanitarian crisis in eastern Ethiopia, where several hundred thousand people face food shortages.
"It was apparent . . . that the human rights and protection situation for the civilian population in the areas of military operation is alarming and requires urgent attention," the report says. Leaders of the U.N. mission said they encountered "pervasive fear" among most of the civilians they interviewed during a trip this month to regions where Ethiopian troops are battling the Ogaden National Liberation Front.
The report is the first official U.N. investigation of a recent flare-up in the Ogaden region, where the Ethiopian government has been accused of waging a brutal campaign against rebels and villagers believed to be supporting them.
Aid workers and refugees say government troops have burned villages, raped women, blocked food assistance and prevented journalists, doctors and other relief workers from traveling in the region.
Last month, the government expelled the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross, and Doctors Without Borders has complained that it has been denied access.
"Dozens of civilians have been killed in what appears to be a deliberate effort to mete out collective punishment against a civilian population," Human Rights Watch said recently.
Several thousand Ethiopians have fled to Kenya, Somalia and Djibouti, aid workers say.
Ethiopia has denied the allegations, saying troops are battling a "terrorist" organization responsible for attacks on civilians. In April, rebels attacked a Chinese-run oil field in Ogaden, killing 74 people.
Ethiopian government officials could not be reached Wednesday night for comment, but they released a statement pledging to work with U.N. officials to improve humanitarian conditions, including reopening roads to Somalia to restore commercial trade routes, facilitating access for humanitarian workers and reopening livestock markets.
"They are taking a very positive stand on our recommendations very quickly," said Paul Hebert, head of U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Ethiopia, which led the fact-finding mission.
The report states that recent military operations had blocked traditional trade routes for several villages, leading to food shortages, an inability to buy and sell cattle, and soaring prices.
"Because of the lack of food, people are at their limit," Hebert said. "It's not a major crisis right now, but in the next two months it could become one if it is not addressed."
He declined to comment on specific human rights violations, saying the details would be provided to the government in a separate report.
During a visit to Ethiopia this month, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi E. Frazer expressed concern over the growing humanitarian crisis in Ogaden, but said allegations of government abuse were "unsubstantiated."
The controversy has put Washington in an uncomfortable position because Ethiopia, a major recipient of U.S. aid and military training, has served as a staunch ally in American anti-terrorism efforts on the Horn of Africa. Last year, Ethiopia invaded neighbor Somalia to oust an alliance of Islamic militants who had seized control of the capital, Mogadishu. U.S. forces participated in the invasion, launching airstrikes against suspected militant targets.
On Wednesday, Ogaden rebel leaders expressed support for an internationally monitored investigation of alleged human rights violations, saying that the U.N. team had not been permitted to visit the worst-affected regions.
"War crimes indicative of an unfolding genocide continue in Ogaden, and the United Nations bears a particular responsibility to avert another preventable genocide in Africa," the group said in a statement.