Bitter fighting continues in Ethiopia’s troubled southeast as a humanitarian crisis looms, with government troops battling separatist rebels of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). The Ogaden, Ethiopia’s “Region Five,” is a poor desert land about the size of Britain with some 4.5 million people, mainly ethnic Somalis.
While the ONLF has conducted a low-level insurgency for self-determination since 1984, violence increased sharply in April after 77 people were killed in a rebel attack on a Chinese oil venture. Prospectors say the Ogaden is potentially rich in oil and gas, although viable extraction seems far off. Ethiopian troops launched a major military operation in response to the attack, with well-equipped rebels hitting back. Amidst a long and complicated history of local inter-clan struggle, both rebels and government have engaged in brutal attempts to pressure civilians and mobilize support. Both sides have exchanged furious accusations via the media, although much remains difficult to verify independently, with outside observers restricted from all but major areas. However, reports from civilians fleeing to neighboring Kenya or the Somali region of Puntland leave little doubt as to the veracity of many of the increasingly bloody reports.
The rebels accuse Addis Ababa of “state sponsored genocide” (ONLF statement, November 25). Pro-rebel news websites accuse government troops and government-backed militias of “extra-judicial killings,” army reprisals, looting of property and the burning of homes. They claim government troops are using helicopter gunships to crush fighters and civilians suspected of supporting the movement (Ogaden Online, November 20). The rebels claim Ethiopian troops have hung civilians in “trouble spots” as part of a policy of collective punishment aimed at destroying grassroots support for the separatists (ONLF statement, November 29).
Addis Ababa has repeatedly dismissed such reports as rebel propaganda. Instead, Ethiopia claims it is justified in carrying out military action to put down an insurgency by rebels it claims are “terrorists,” pointing to several bombings in the regional capital Jijiga. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi says he is determined to continue the fight, vowing Ethiopia will sustain the crackdown on the rebels (AFP, November 27).
Zenawi has repeatedly accused his old enemy Eritrea of arming the ONLF, as well as other “anti-peace elements,” including Islamist insurgents in Somalia and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), another Ethiopian-based rebel group (Ethiopian News Agency, November 27). Eritrea, of course, rejects these claims. Fighting in neighboring Somalia—where Ethiopian troops were deployed in December 2006 to back the feeble interim government against an Islamist movement that United States claims is linked with al-Qaeda—destabilized the troubled Ogaden, a long-term buffer zone between Addis Ababa and Somalia. Washington has also alleged growing connections between radical Somali groups like al-Ittihad al-Islami (accused of ties to al-Qaeda), the ONLF and another smaller Somali rebel group fighting in the Ogaden, the United Western Somalia Liberation Front (UWSLF).
Some one million people have been displaced by the violence in Somalia. With fighters facing a common enemy in a very unsettled region there is little doubt rebels across the region have established links. The governor of the southwestern Somali region of Bakool claimed that fighters from the extremist al-Shabaab militia, the well-equipped military wing of the now deposed Islamic Courts, were gathering close to the Ethiopian border (Garowe Online, November 30). Sheikh Sharif Sheik Ahmed, chairman of the Eritrean-based Somali opposition umbrella group, the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS), and former chairman of the Council of Islamic Courts (CIC), has suggested all Somalis, with a shared language and religion, face a common battle with Ethiopia (Der Spiegel Online, November 27).
The long-term impact of these links may be overemphasized, since the ONLF fight has been traditionally more of a nationalist clan struggle for independence than any battle for wider Islamist rule, nor is it guided by a vision of a united “Greater Somalia.” Yet, amidst the battles, concerns of a major humanitarian crisis are growing, with reports of attacks on civilians and abuses of food aid. UN humanitarian chief John Holmes, following a visit to the war-torn region, warned that a “disaster could unfold with frightening speed” in an “increasingly explosive region” and has called for an investigation into reports of human rights abuses (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, December 6).
Food supplies have been restricted, due both to insecurity and government restrictions hampering delivery of food aid, as well as a blockade of the Somali border due to Addis Ababa’s concerns about the smuggling of weapons into Ethiopia. Poor rains have added to the problems of many pastoralists in the arid region. Ethiopia expelled several aid agencies in July from the Ogaden, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). But with mounting international criticism—after the conflict finally drew the sluggish attention of the Western press—Ethiopia is slowly allowing several agencies back into limited humanitarian corridors. For Ethiopia, engaged in bitter fighting in Somalia and faced with an unresolved border deadlock with Eritrea, there seems little hope for long-term internal peace in the Ogaden.