Britain and US 'complicit in war crimes by Ethiopian military'

The British and US governments are complicit in war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Ethiopian army in the Ogaden region of the Horn of Africa, a human rights group has claimed.

A report by Human Rights Watch details allegations of rape, torture and public execution carried out by Ethiopian soldiers against civilians in the predominantly Somali Ogaden area, where Ethiopia is fighting a fierce counter-insurgency campaign. The battles intensified last year after an attack by rebels of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) on a Chinese-run oil plant in the town of Obole. The ONLF killed more than 70 civilians, including nine Chinese.

In response, Ethiopia stepped up its military crackdown in the eastern province, referred to by some ethnic Somali Muslims as Western Somalia. Witnesses say Ethiopian forces have burnt dozens of villages to the ground – a claim apparently confirmed by satellite images released by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

According to Human Rights Watch, people accused of aiding the ONLF have executed, often in public, while hundreds more have been detained in military barracks and tortured.

"The Ethiopian army's response to the rebels has been to viciously attack civilians in Ogaden," said the group's spokeswoman, Georgette Gagnon. "These atrocities amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity."

Ethiopia's Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, was once held up as a poster boy for African governance, taking a prominent role in Tony Blair's Commission for Africa. But since 2005, he has claimed victory in a flawed election and clamped down on political opposition. Up to 200 people protesting against the result were killed by security forces and 100 were charged with treason.

Despite claims of authoritarianism and war crimes in both Ogaden and neighbouring Somalia, British aid for Ethiopia has more than doubled since 2005 to £130m. The US has also increased its support for the army, which it sees as a strong regional ally in the "war on terror".

Neither country has spoken publicly about alleged abuses in the Ogaden. "This silence is complicity," Ms Gagnon said. "It tells [the army] they will continue to get support, no matter what they do on the human rights side."

A Foreign Office spokesman said Britain was concerned by the report and had raised human rights issues with the Ethiopian regime "on a number of occasions". But he would not say whether abuses in the Ogaden had been discussed.

Bereket Simon, an adviser to Meles Zenawai, dismissed the allegations as "a fabrication".