Aid agency warns of possible starvation in eastern Ethiopia

NAIROBI, Kenya — A leading relief agency said Tuesday that Ethiopian government forces had blocked relief efforts and food supplies in parts of the rebel Ogaden region, adding the threat of starvation to a rapidly growing humanitarian crisis.

Doctors Without Borders said that Ethiopian forces — which are trying to crush a long-running separatist movement in the eastern region — repeatedly had denied its teams access to two of the worst-affected areas in recent weeks, citing security operations.

Agency staff members who traveled along some main roads in the harsh, rock-strewn Ogaden in June, July and August saw villages burned and abandoned, severe shortages of even basic medicines and widespread signs of malnutrition. They said that at least 400,000 people urgently needed help. Some doctors said Ethiopian troops were enforcing partial food blockades in certain areas.

"I think we are missing a big thing that is happening under our eyes," said Loris De Filippi, the operations coordinator for Doctors Without Borders Belgium in Ethiopia.

The agency said Prime Minister Meles Zenawi hadn't responded to its appeals for access. A spokesman for the Ethiopian government, Zemedkun Tekle, rejected the charges Tuesday. "No organization has been blocked from having access to that area," he said.

There was no immediate reaction from the United States, which sees Ethiopia as a key partner against terrorism in the Horn of Africa. Last December, with support from American military and intelligence, Ethiopia invaded neighboring Somalia and toppled a fundamentalist Islamic regime that Bush administration officials had linked to al Qaida.

The relief agency's claims, along with those of other international groups, suggest that Ethiopia's domestic military campaign is endangering civilians in an impoverished region that's prone to food shortages and disease even in times of peace.

Ethiopian authorities who barred one Doctors Without Borders team from entering a section of the Ogaden outside the town of Fiq last month said that it was for the team's own safety, De Filippi said.

The authorities gave an ominous warning:

"They said, 'We'll finish the operations and then you can go,' " De Filippi said. "And we said humanitarian aid is not about bringing flowers (to) the graves afterward."

In the vast area of about 4 million people, mainly ethnic Somali nomads, separatist groups have long agitated for greater autonomy from the government in Addis Ababa. Tensions flared in April, when the leading rebel group, the Ogaden National Liberation Front, attacked a Chinese-run oil installation and killed 74 people.

Since then, Ethiopian forces have stepped up their counterinsurgency campaign. In July, Human Rights Watch accused the security forces of displacing thousands of civilians, destroying villages and blocking commercial and humanitarian vehicles from some areas.

Later that month, Ethiopia expelled the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross from the Ogaden, accusing its workers of aiding the rebels.

With journalists effectively barred from the Ogaden, the claims are impossible to verify. A United Nations team is in the region to assess the humanitarian situation, but it's unclear whether it will be allowed into the hardest-hit areas.

Most aid agencies, including Doctors Without Borders, have been reluctant to speak about the crisis publicly for fear of jeopardizing their missions. But the doctors who broke the silence Tuesday said conditions in some corners were deteriorating rapidly.

Fieke Felix, a doctor from the Netherlands who worked in the far eastern town of Warder, near the border with Somalia, said rates of malnutrition were rising in late July, when her team evacuated because of security concerns.

Speaking by phone from the Netherlands, Felix said food shortages had worsened in Warder between April and July as Ethiopian troops boarded some commercial trucks and confiscated goods. Food prices tripled and commercial activity came to a standstill, Felix said.

Doctors Without Borders treated patients for gunshot wounds and beatings that some blamed on the Ethiopian troops who've made Warder a garrison town, Felix said. Malnutrition and diseases such as measles also were rising.

"They live in great fear," Felix said.

Eileen Skinnider, who also worked in Warder, said via an Internet link from Canada that she'd witnessed Ethiopian troops chasing women and children away from a well as they tried to collect water recently.

Several villages in the area had been burned and deserted by all but the elderly and ill, Skinnider said. Many had fled into the bush and requested that Doctors Without Borders treat them there, where they wouldn't be seen. When agency vehicles approached one village, residents hid in fear until they saw that the cars weren't carrying security forces.

"They told us they were afraid that if they were still found in their village, their village would be burned," Skinnider said.

In Fiq, about 250 miles to the west, local officials told a Doctors Without Borders team in July that no medical supplies had been delivered in six months. The risk of childbirth injuries has risen because women who need Caesarean sections are afraid to travel to faraway towns for care, De Filippi said.

"Mother and child will die because they don't have the possibility to move in the areas," he said.