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Refugees report killings in Ethiopia

BOSSASSO, Somalia – The Ethiopian government is starving and killing its own people in the remote eastern Ogaden region, according to refugees, who describe a terrifying four-month crackdown in which security forces have sealed off villages, torched homes and businesses, commandeered food and water sources, and beaten, raped or executed anyone who resists.

Hundreds of civilians already may have been killed in the crackdown on a separatist movement known as the Ogaden National Liberation Front, according to interviews with dozens of Ogadenis who’ve gathered in a steadily growing refugee camp in this steamy port city 300 miles from the Ethiopian border.

“They strangled my wife with a rope,” said Ahmed Mohammed Abdi, a 35-year-old farmer from Degehabur province, who came home one day this month to see his wife’s body lying by the door, his 1-month-old son still suckling at her breast. That night, he fled into the bush and began a seven-day trek to the relative safety of northern Somalia.

“If you come and try to identify the dead body, the soldiers will beat you also,” said the wiry, wide-eyed Abdi. “I was afraid to be killed, so I ran away.”

A top aide to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi rejected the allegations. The government has barred reporters and international relief groups from most of the region, a vast desert that stretches from the central Ethiopian highlands to the border with Somalia.

In July, Ethiopia expelled the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross from the Ogaden, accusing its workers of aiding the rebels. Last week, the aid agency Doctors Without Borders said it also had been denied access, and it warned of a major humanitarian crisis.

Some aid workers worry that the Ogaden could become a second Darfur, referring to the Sudanese government crackdown on insurgents in that country’s Darfur region, which the United States has labeled genocide. In this instance, the United States has come out in support of Ethiopia, one of its most important African allies in the war on terrorism.

The U.S. has helped train Ethiopia’s military – one of the largest and best equipped in Africa – and backed its recent invasion of Somalia to topple a fundamentalist Islamic regime there. Last week, after visiting one town in the Ogaden, Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer condemned the rebels and said reports of military atrocities were unsubstantiated.