A rebel group in Ethiopia is appealing for international aid in an ethnically Somali region where the group said Friday that drought and a government decision to bar international aid groups have led to the deaths of children and the elderly.
The population in the semiarid eastern Somali region, badly needs water after Ethiopian troops seized the few wells in the area, said Abdirahman Mahdi, the spokesman of the Ogaden National Liberation Front, which is fighting for greater autonomy. Mahdi spoke to The Associated Press from London, where the rebel group's publicity wing is based.
The region that borders Somalia has been mired in a low-level insurgency since the early 1990s, when the ONLF intensified its attacks against Ethiopian troops, who they see as occupiers.
Mahdi said that "scores" of children and the elderly have died in the region, known as the Ogaden. He did not have precise figures and cited local government officials, who he said are afraid to speak publicly because of reprisals.
"Unless the international community takes urgent measures to mitigate the effects of this drought by forcing the (the Ethiopian government) to allow unfettered access to Ogaden, a catastrophe could happen," he said.
A March 7 U.N. humanitarian report said the water shortage has worsened in Somali region, and that the average price of 5 gallons (20 liters) of water has skyrocketed from $.05 to $.65.
Human rights groups accuse the Addis Ababa regime of widespread violations of human rights in Ogaden, and of denying aid groups free access to the region. The government has previously accused aid groups of helping rebels.
Ethiopian officials did not answer calls seeking comment, but in the past have denied rebel accusations.
Claire Beston, Amnesty International's Ethiopia researcher, said the Ethiopian government should allow aid groups to operate freely in Somali region.
"Access for humanitarian organizations to the Somali region in Ethiopia continues to be severely restricted by the Ethiopian government, despite the fact that the region is regularly affected by drought, food insecurity and conflict," she said. "Journalists and human rights observers _ also severely limited in their access to the region _ must similarly be permitted to travel to the region to obtain independent assessments of the humanitarian and human rights situation."
Journalists are restricted from traveling freely in the region.
Human Rights Watch last year accused local officials of "routinely" denying government support to opposition supporters and civil society activists, including rural residents in desperate need of food aid.
Ethiopia, an American ally, is one of the world's largest recipients of development aid, with the EU, US, U.K, and Germany being the largest bilateral donors, said Human Rights Watch. Ethiopia received more than $3 billion in 2008 alone, the group said.
According to the U.N., the food security outlook in the region is bleak.
"The failure of the (spring) rains could lead to serious humanitarian problems worsening the water crises, affecting the breeding of animals and increasing cases of malnutrition," the U.N. said in its weekly report.