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UN to open office in Ethiopia's troubled Ogaden

Tue 6 Nov 2007, 16:08 GMT
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By Barry Malone

ADDIS ABABA, November 6 (Reuters) - The United Nations on Tuesday said it is opening an office in Ethiopia's Ogaden region, where the government had shut down many aid organisations while fighting an insurgency.

The government and the United Nations last month agreed on a protocol on working together to ensure aid reaches the people who need it the most in the poor and desolate region, while also ensuring rebels there do not benefit.

Some aid and rights groups have accused the Ethiopian government of blocking aid shipments and carrying out abuses against civilians in Ogaden, which Ethiopia denies.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said its facility in the Ogaden would be opened on Wednesday.

"We still have major worries about nutrition, disease and access to water," Paul Hebert, head of OCHA in Ethiopia, told Reuters. He said the group's first order of business was to make an assessment of the situation once it gets staff in the field.

The U.N. has also called for an independent investigation into allegations of human rights abuses by Ethiopian forces in the region. Government troops are fighting Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) rebels who want more autonomy for their region.

Hebert said 12 aid organisations have been given permission to work in Ogaden. Ethiopia had said it clamped down on aid shipments to make sure they were not diverted to the ONLF.

The organisations approved to work there include Mdecins Sans Frontires, which had angered Addis Ababa after their staff reported witnessing burned and deserted villages, locals fleeing to the bush and a dismal health situation in June and July.

But there has been no reprieve for the International Committee of the Red Cross, which was expelled from the region in July following regional government accusations that it collaborated with the rebels.

"We will engage in further lobbying for ... access," Hebert said.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi calls the ONLF terrorists and says they are backed by neighbouring Eritrea, which remains locked in a bitter border dispute with Ethiopia.

The ONLF this week declared it had killed 270 Ethiopian army troops over a seven-day period and said clashes between its forces and the army were increasing.

But an Ethiopian government statement on Tuesday said "peace was now prevailing".

Both sides routinely claim they have inflicted major casualties on the other, but the reports are difficult to independently verify. (Editing by Bryson Hull and Mary Gabriel)

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