US recognises Ethiopian crisis

By Barney Jopson / September 09, 2007

Addis Ababa (The Financial Times) - A senior US official has said for the first time that a “humanitarian crisis” is unfolding in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, putting Washington at odds with the Addis Ababa government, which has rejected similar claims from aid organisations.

Jendayi Frazer, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, made the comment on Saturday following a trip to the region, where government forces are fighting rebels who this year stepped up a violent campaign for self-determination.

Ethiopian government forces have been accused by non-governmental organisations of human rights abuses, but Addis Ababa has rejected the charges and denied reports of shortages of food and medical supplies.

The difference of opinion with the US is significant because the two countries are normally staunch allies. They co-operate closely on anti-terrorism and Washington sees Ethiopia as a source of stability in the highly combustible Horn of Africa.

The Ogaden is gaining attention just as Ethiopia seeks to use the start of its third millennium, which dawns under the country’s calendar on Wednesday, to present a fresh image to the world.

“We are trying to co-operate to solve the humanitarian crisis,” Ms Frazer told a press conference in Addis Ababa.

Bereket Simon, an adviser to the Ethiopian prime minister, told the FT: “There is not in any way a humanitarian crisis or anything that resembles it.”

Referring to Médecins sans Frontières – the medical aid group that last week said 400,000 people in the Ogaden were being denied humanitarian aid – he said: “These people are living by selling this type of information. They don’t have the capacity to verify things. They just report what they are told.”

Ms Frazer said independent observers should get better access to the vast region.