NAIROB (AFP) — The Ethiopian army has executed, tortured and raped civilians in its crackdown against rebels in the country's southern Ogaden region, Human Rights Watch said Thursday.
The New York-based watchdog accused Ethiopia's main donors -- United States, Britain and the European Union -- of "maintaining a conspiracy of silence around the crimes."
The military launched an offensive against the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) rebels after they attacked a Chinese-run oil venture in Ogaden in April 2007, killing 74 people.
"The Ethiopian army's answer to the rebels has been to viciously attack civilians in Ogaden," Georgette Gagnon, the rights watchdog's director for Africa, said in a statement.
At the height of the offensive between June and September, the army forcibly displaced entire villages, destroyed houses and executed at least 150 civilians as well as arbitrarily detained hundreds in military bases.
"They gathered all of the people together. Then the commander ordered the village burned," said one witness cited in the 150-page report entitled Collective Punishment: War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity in the Ogaden Area of Ethiopia's Somali Regional State."
Another witness told of repeated beatings using rifle handles and barrels.
"It lasted for more than an hour. They tied both my legs and lifted me upside down to the ceiling with a rope and kept beating me more saying I had to confess."
"For two months we underwent this same ordeal...," said the witness, among more than 100 victims interviewed by the HRW, which conducted the probe between September and December last year.
HRW also accused the rebels of "serious violations of laws of war," including executions in the April 2007 attack, but Gagnon stressed the scale of the army's exactions was much graver.
The bulk of the research for the report was conducted in the last months of 2007 and the rights group's Peter Bouckaert, who supervised it, said that while the level of violence had decreased in 2008, abuses were continuing.
Bereket Simon, special adviser to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, charged that HRW had based its report on ONLF propaganda.
"Human Rights Watch is engaged in misinforming the public based on the information of the ONLF, whose forces have been destroyed by the actions of the Ethiopian government," he told AFP.
"They don't have any representative on the ground but have chosen to issue a report on hearsay from the ONLF apparatus."
During a press conference in Nairobi, HRW defended the riguour of its methodology and insisted it was "100 percent confident" about its findings.
Gagnon blamed Ethiopia's western supporters for deliberately ignoring the abuses being committed in the Ogaden region.
"Silence is complicity in this case," she said.
US, British and European Union aid to the Ethiopian government amounts to two billion dollars annually.
HRW stressed that Washington was under the obligation to investigate war crimes allegations to comply with the Leahy law, a human rights stipulation in the US foreign assistance legislation.
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