Relief groups say their ouster may spur Ethiopia rights abuses

The possibility of widespread starvation and human rights violations in Ethiopia are twin concerns voiced by international relief agencies following Ethiopia's order for all foreign relief workers to leave the northern war zones. Officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and UNICEF are raising both issues and calling for a reversal of the expulsion order given last week.

Without the foreign presence in Eritrea and Tigre Provinces, these officials say, there is a greater chance of atrocities being committed during fighting.

``No one will be a witness to the way the war is conducted,'' says Leon de Riedmatten, the ICRC's deputy delegate general for Africa, based in Geneva.

``When governments refuse access to the outside world, I think something terribly, terribly wrong is going on,'' says M. Baquer Namazi, UNICEF's representative in Kenya.

Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions on armed conflict, which Ethiopia has signed, specifically names the ICRC as an ``impartial humanitarian body,'' that may offer its services in observing the conduct of the war.

The last ICRC officials left northern Ethiopia, under government orders, yesterday. The government is now accusing the ICRC of aiding the rebels.

International pressure to get the government of Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam to reverse the order is mounting. A top envoy from the UN arrived Thursday in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, with the hope of getting the order reversed.

United States officials have been in touch with Soviet officials to try to assure food relief reaches an estimated 3 million needy people in Eritrea and Tigre, the two regions hardest hit by both drought and war.

In Addis Ababa, ICRC spokesman Vincent Bernard said his agency is needed in those areas to protect people.

Of the 3 million people at risk, more than 2 million are now in rebel-held areas. There is special concern for these people because all along the Ethiopian government has allowed relief food to be distributed only in government-held areas. Those areas have shrunk dramatically in recent weeks as a result of military advances by the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front and the Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front.

Some relief food gets to rebel areas via Sudan, but rebel spokesmen said, even before recent military gains, the amounts were far from sufficient.

So far, Eritreans and Tigreans have not migrated in mass to main towns for food like they did in 1984-85 during the last famine. And some crop surpluses are reported in parts of Tigre. But the ICRC's Bernard said the situation is serious now and could become ``critical'' within a month.

The explusion order does not affect Ethiopian relief workers employed by international organizations. US food relief, for example, continues to move through private Ethiopian groups. ICRC aid has been stopped, however, because ICRC officials are not allowed to oversee distribution.

Also still in place are the Ethiopian government's own relief efforts, which generally get high ratings by international relief officials. But it is clear that war has taken priority as the government fights to recapture territory lost to the rebels this year.

A mass mobilization is under way to get troops to the northern fronts where war has been raging for 27 years. A top Ethiopian aid official said full relief operations would not resume until these areas ``are cleansed of bandit activity.''

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