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Ethiopia PM Charges 'Smear Campaign' Against Troops in Somalia

By Peter Heinlein
Addis Ababa
21 May 2008

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has accused international media and human rights groups of conducting a smear campaign against Ethiopian troops in Somalia. Speaking to parliament, Mr. Meles vowed that the troops would remain as long as needed to support the transitional government in Mogadishu. VOA's Peter Heinlein listened to the prime minister's remarks, and reports they were notable as much for what was not said as for what was.

Prime Minister Meles confined his remarks to six scripted questions submitted by lawmakers. An attempt by one opposition politician to raise another point was overruled.

The prime minister gave a detailed defense of the behavior of Ethiopian troops supporting Somalia's transitional government.

Several human rights groups have accused the soldiers of numerous atrocities during their nearly 18 months in Somalia, including an attack on a Mogadishu mosque last month that left at least 10 people dead.

In an e-mail to reporters Wednesday, a group called the Ogaden Human Rights Committee also charged that civilians from Ethiopia's Somali region, known as the Ogaden, are being forcibly repatriated, after fleeing to Somalia to escape a harsh Ethiopian counterinsurgency campaign.

Mr. Meles dismissed those reports as part of a smear campaign aimed at forcing the troops to leave Somalia. He vowed to keep them there as long as necessary.

"The international media and so-called human rights organizations do say all sorts of things about our military and ourselves with a tremendous smear campaign," he said. "They do tarnish our reputation, but we will not be able to get rid of these tarnishings and smears because we leave Somalia. We should know those smears are not happening because those organizations don't know the truth, but it's because they choose to do so."

The Ethiopian leader also addressed other regional issues, including a border dispute with Sudan, the recent incursion by Eritrean soldiers into Djibouti, and a water shortage in the capital.

But opposition politicians, diplomatic observers and journalists expressed surprise that several critical issues on the minds of Ethiopians went unmentioned. Among them are the recent spate of terrorist bombings in Addis Ababa, and a rapidly developing food emergency threatening the lives of tens of thousands of children.

The U.N. children's agency UNICEF this week warned that as many as six million Ethiopian children are at risk of acute malnutrition, 126,000 of them in urgent need of therapeutic care to avoid starvation.

That word coincided with an announcement by the World Food Program that it is in danger of running out of emergency nutrition supplements, and word from the U.N. humanitarian agency OCHA that the number of Ethiopians in urgent need of food aid has increased by one million over the past month.

Prime Minister Meles's comments in parliament came little more than 12 hours after a terrorist bomb destroyed a taxi minivan outside Ethiopia's foreign ministry building, killing at least five people. Last month, bombs at two gas stations in Addis killed a total of three people.

No one has claimed responsibility for the bombing, but police attribute all three attacks and at least two other bomb blasts in the capital in recent month to terrorists.

In his comments to lawmakers Wednesday, Mr. Meles said several groups are 'bent on causing havoc in our country'. He mentioned Horn of Africa rival Eritrea, as well as rebels of the Ogaden National Liberation Front and the regional Oromo Liberation Front.

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