June 13, 2008

Satellite Images Show Destruction of Ethiopian Villages

Images obtained from satellites confirm reports that Ethiopia's military has destroyed several towns and villages in the nation's arid, rocky eastern region of Ogaden.  The images were disclosed Thursday as part of a report by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and provide evidence of burning and other destruction in the area.  

In the past the AAAS has used satellite images to support claims of widespread abuses in Myanmar, Burma, Zimbabwe, Chad and the Darfur region of Sudan.

The commercially available images show eight sites in the remote Ogaden region bordering Somalia with clear signs of burning and other destruction.  They corroborate a separate report by the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, also released Thursday, which includes eyewitness testimony of attacks on thousands of ethnic-Somali Muslims, the AAAS said.

"The Ethiopian authorities frequently dismiss human rights reports, saying that the witnesses we interviewed are liars and rebel supporters," Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement about the matter.

"But it will be much more difficult for them to dismiss the evidence presented in the satellite images, as images like that don't lie."

Ethiopia is a major United States ally in the region.  Reports indicate the nation launched its latest attack after the Ogaden National Liberation Front killed more than 70 people during an attack on a Chinese-run oil field in April 2007.

But authorities with the Ethiopian government in Addis Ababa have consistently rejected accusations against their counter-insurgency operations, and claim the rebels are abusing the local population.

Lars Bromley, AAAS project director for the Science and Human Rights Program, said  several before and after satellite images of villages identified by Human Right Watch as possible locations of human rights violations were analyzed.  The images show that eight locations, mostly in villages and small towns in the Wardheer, Dhagabur and Qorrahey Zones, were either burned or destroyed.  

In the town of Labigah, 40 structures identified in a September 2005 image were destroyed in later images obtained in February of this year.  The Human Rights Watch report cited an eyewitness who said the Ethiopian army "went into every village and set it on fire."

The accounts are extremely difficult to corroborate because the region "may well be the most isolated place on earth, save perhaps the densest parts of the Congolese or Amazon rain forests," Bromley told Reuters.

The AAAS also said it was nearly impossible to determine precisely what is going on in some of the villages.

"While some towns are considered permanent, they can grow and shrink over the course of a year due to fluctuations in nomadic populations, and many smaller villages will relocate altogether," the report reads.

"To ensure the most accurate results, AAAS for the most part sought to review only permanent towns in the Ogaden, as indicated by their location along a well-defined road and by the presence of square structures with metal-sheet or brick roofing, and most often including a mosque."


Image 1: The town of Labigah - 26 September 2005. Images © 2008 DigitalGlobe

Image 2: The town of Labigah - 28 February 2008. Images © 2008 DigitalGlobe


On the Net:

American Association for the Advancement of Science

Full AAAS Report