NAIROBI, Kenya — Ethiopian soldiers have forcibly drafted hundreds of civilians to fight separatist rebels in the desolate, predominantly Muslim Ogaden region in a shadowy military campaign supported by the Bush administration, according to more than a dozen refugees and former recruits who've fled to neighboring Kenya.
The untrained and ill-equipped draftees — including students, camel herders and tribal leaders who've never fired weapons in combat — are being thrown into pitched battles with ethnic Somali guerrillas and often suffer heavy casualties, the refugees and ex-recruits said.
Men who resist joining these civilian militias — known as "dabaqodhi," or "puppets" of the government — are beaten, locked up in military prisons or killed, the refugees said in interviews. When recruits perform poorly in combat, as they often do, they're abused and accused of aiding the rebels, refugees said.
The accounts offer a disturbing glimpse into the U.S.-backed Ethiopian government's months-long battle against an ethnic Somali separatist group known as the Ogaden National Liberation Front. The fight has been conducted virtually in secret in the dry, craggy eastern region that's home to about 4 million mostly ethnic Somali nomads.
The refugees' accounts also have renewed questions about the Bush administration's unflinching support for Ethiopia's Christian-led government, its main African ally in the war on terrorism. Ethiopian troops, with U.S. military support, invaded neighboring Somalia last December to oust a hard-line Islamist regime and have been bogged down by a stubborn insurgency there ever since.
Some U.S. and Ethiopian officials think that Islamist fighters from Somalia are aiding the ONLF. On a recent visit to Ethiopia, Jendayi Frazer, the ranking State Department official for Africa, said Ethiopia had a right to defend itself and that allegations of civilian killings were unsubstantiated.
An Ethiopian government spokesman, Zemedkun Tekle, said the allegations were untrue. "The policy of the country to recruit soldiers is on a voluntary basis," he said. "In our country, no one is forced without his will to join the military."
"They came into my school one morning and selected 20 boys and put us into military barracks," said Abdirahman Ali Hashi, a lanky, bookish 23-year-old who described how government troops plucked him last February from his 10th-grade classroom in the town of Degehabur.
With no training other than a cursory lesson on how to fire their AK-47 rifles, they were sent to the battlefield to guide Ethiopian troops who didn't know the terrain, Hashi said. But the guerrillas outgunned them.
Hashi said that soldiers killed another draftee, a childhood friend named Mohammed Abdullah, after their unit came under heavy fire from rebels near the village of Hurale.
"They said he was keeping secrets and accused him of being a member of the ONLF," Hashi said. "When he replied, they used the handles of their guns to beat him. He became unconscious. Then they shot him."
For much of the year, Ethiopia barred journalists and international humanitarian agencies from the region. In recent weeks, however, several relief organizations have been allowed to return, and groups investigating the conflict said they'd also heard accounts of civilians being press-ganged into military service.
"Forced recruitment of militia members is one of a number of very credible allegations of abuses that we've heard coming from the Somali region" of Ethiopia, said Leslie Lefkow, a senior researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch. "There's no question that there has been abuses taking place for many years, but there seems to have been a very serious escalation this year with the government's intensified (military) campaign."
After visiting the Ogaden, U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes warned Wednesday of a potentially "serious humanitarian crisis" and recommended that Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi investigate allegations of human rights abuses.
According to former recruits and human rights groups, village elders are forced to produce a quota of fighters from their clan, or tribe. The fighters generally aren't paid or given uniforms, and clans are required to furnish their own weapons. In years past, some elders said that military commanders diverted U.N. food rations from hungry villagers to pay off men who helped recruit fighters.
"They tell you to bring your young boys and give them your guns," said Abdullahi Hassan Mohammed, a 70-year-old clan leader from the Kebredehar district. "They will come to you every morning and demand this, or they will kill you."
The Ogaden nomads — members of a Muslim minority who are tied more closely to tribes in Somalia than they are to the rest of Ethiopia — long have complained that the central government neglects them. Tensions boiled over last April when ONLF rebels attacked a Chinese-run oil field and killed 74 people, most of them Ethiopians.
Since then, the military and the rebels have boasted of winning major battles and capturing or killing dozens from the other side, accounts that have been impossible to verify.
Relief agencies warned of worsening nutrition as government soldiers imposed a blockade on food and humanitarian aid, which they only recently began to lift. Last week, U.S. officials pledged to double humanitarian aid to the Ogaden by sending $45 million in emergency food to the region.