Ethiopia blocking food to rebel region, diplomats say
By Jeffrey Gettleman, The New York Times
July 22, 2007
NAIROBI, Kenya The Ethiopian government is blockading emergency food aid and choking off trade to large parts of a remote region in the eastern part of the country that is home to a rebel force, putting hundreds of thousands of people at risk of starvation, Western diplomats and humanitarian officials say.

The Ethiopian military and its proxy militias have also been siphoning off millions of dollars in food aid and using a U.N. polio eradication program to funnel money to their fighters, according to relief officials, former Ethiopian government administrators and a member of the Ethiopian parliament who defected to Germany.

The blockade takes aim at the heart of the Ogaden region, a vast desert on the Somali border where the government is struggling against a growing rebellion and where government soldiers have been accused by human rights groups of widespread brutality.

Humanitarian officials say the ban on aid convoys and commercial traffic, intended to squeeze the rebels and dry up their bases of support, has sent food prices skyrocketing and disrupted trade routes, preventing the area's nomads from selling their livestock. Hundreds of thousands of people are sealed off in a landscape that is difficult to survive in even in the best of times.

"Food cannot get in," said Mohammed Diab, the director of the U.N. World Food Program in Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian government says the blockade covers only strategic locations and is meant to prevent guns and other supplies from reaching the Ogaden National Liberation Front, the rebel force that the government considers a terrorist group. In April, the rebels killed more than 60 Ethiopian guards and Chinese workers at a Chinese-run oil field in the Ogaden.

"This is not a government which punishes its people," said Nur Abdi Mohammed, a government spokesman.

Western diplomats have been urging Ethiopian officials to lift the blockade, arguing that the many people in the area are running out of time.

"It's a starve-out-the-population strategy," said one Western humanitarian official, who did not want to be quoted by name because he feared reprisals against aid workers. "If something isn't done on the diplomatic front soon, we're going to have a government-caused famine on our hands."

The blockade comes as Congress is increasingly concerned about Ethiopia's human rights record. Ethiopia is a close American ally and a key partner in counterterrorism efforts in the Horn of Africa, a region that has become a breeding ground for Islamic militants.

Ethiopia receives nearly $500 million in U.S. aid each year, but last week a House panel passed a bill that would put strict conditions on some of that aid and ban Ethiopian officials linked to abuses from entering the United States.

Ethiopia's pardon on Friday of 30 political prisoners who had been sentenced to life in prison could ease some criticism. But Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is pushing ahead with measures to more closely scrutinize assistance to the Ethiopian military. According to human rights groups and firsthand accounts, government troops have gang-raped women, burned down huts and killed civilians.

U.S. officials in Ethiopia said they were trying to investigate the situation but that the Ogaden is too dangerous now for a fact-finding mission.