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BBC's Ethiopia weapons report denied

Gebremedhin Araya and Max Peberdy
Gebremedhin Araya (L) says he posed as a merchant, but was in fact a rebel

Ethiopian officials and an aid agency have denied a BBC report that millions of dollars in aid for Ethiopian famine victims in the 1980s went to buy arms.

Abadi Zemo, a senior member of Ethiopia's ruling coalition, described the allegations as nonsensical.

The charity Christian Aid said its "investigations do not correspond to the BBC's version of events".

The BBC report said millions of dollars in Western aid had been siphoned off by Ethiopian rebels to buy weapons.

It quotes former rebel leaders as saying they had posed as merchants in meetings with charity workers to get aid money during the 1984-85 famine.

They used the cash to fund attempts to overthrow the government of the time, the report said.

One rebel leader estimated that $95m (£63m) - from Western governments and charities - had been used for military purposes.

An assessment by America's CIA at the time said aid was almost certainly diverted.

'Rubbish'

Mr Zemo, who was the head of the humanitarian wing of the rebel Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) in the 1980s, dismissed the allegations in the BBC report, saying they were not new.

He also rejected the claim that current Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, a leading TPLF member in the 1980s, had ordered that only 5% of the aid fund should go towards feeding the hungry.

"Do you think the TPLF could tolerate such a thing, do you think they could do such a thing? No, this is rubbish."

ETHIOPIA FAMINE
A woman, mother and her baby from Eritrea, Ethiopia
Roughly one million Ethiopians died from results of famine
Disaster exacerbated by civil war

Meanwhile, Christian Aid, which was involved in delivering aid to Ethiopia at the time, said in a statement: "There are allegations in the [BBC] story which are against all of Christian Aid's principles and our initial investigations do not correspond to the BBC's version of events."

Nick Guttmann, the agency's director of emergency relief operations, said that the "story has to be put into context".

"We were working in a major conflict, there was a massive famine and people on all sides were suffering.

"Both the rebels and the government were using innocent civilians to further their own political ends. But that is not what humanitarian agencies like ourselves were doing. We were there to help the people in the greatest need and did so.

"In all emergency relief operations, Christian Aid produces a budget which states how much food we can afford to buy and how many people this will reach. This is always followed up with monitoring visits to see the projects and account for every penny," Mr Guttmann said.

Aid workers 'fooled'

The crisis in 1984 prompted a huge Western relief effort to Ethiopia.

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Michael Buerk's 1984 report in Ethiopia which shocked the world

Although millions of people were saved by the aid that poured into the country, evidence suggests not all of the aid went to the most needy.

At the time, the Ethiopian government - backed by the Soviet Union - was fighting rebellions in the northern provinces of Eritrea and Tigray.

Much of the countryside was outside of government control, so relief agencies brought aid in from neighbouring Sudan.

Some was in the form of food, some as cash, to buy grain from Ethiopian farmers in areas that were still in surplus.

Max Peberdy, an aid worker from Christian Aid, carried nearly $500,000 in Ethiopian currency across the border in 1984.

He used it to buy grain from merchants and believes that none of the aid was diverted.

CIA INTELLIGENCE
CIA report into Ethiopia aid crisis
Some funds that insurgent organisations are raising for relief operations, as a result of increased world publicity, are almost certainly being diverted for military purposes

"It's 25 years since this happened, and in the 25 years it's the first time anybody has claimed such a thing," he says.

He insists that to the best of his knowledge, the food went to feed the starving.

But the merchant Mr Peberdy dealt with in that transaction claims he was, in fact, a senior member of the TPLF.

"I was given clothes to make me look like a Muslim merchant. This was a trick for the NGOs," said Gebremedhin Araya.

Underneath the sacks of grain he sold, he says, were sacks filled with sand.

He said he had handed over the money he received to TPLF leaders, including Mr Zenawi.

Mr Gebremedhin's version of events was supported by the TPLF's former commander, Aregawi Berhe.

Now living in exile in the Netherlands, he said the rebels had put on what he described as a "drama" to get the money.

"The aid workers were fooled," he said.

He said that some $100m had gone through the hands of the TPLF and affiliated groups.

Some 95% of it was allocated to buying weapons and building up a hard-line Marxist political party within the rebel movement.

Both Mr Aregawi and Mr Gebremedhin fell out with the TPLF leadership and fled the country.

Correction 4 November 2010: This page has been amended following a complaint by the Band Aid Trust, which was upheld by the BBC's Editorial Complaints Unit.



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SEE ALSO
Ethiopia aid 'spent on weapons'
03 Mar 10 |  Africa
Hunger stalks Ethiopia once again
22 Oct 09 |  Africa
Lasting legacy of Ethiopia's famine
23 Oct 09 |  Africa
Timeline: Ethiopia
22 Jan 11 |  Country profiles
Ethiopia country profile
22 Jan 11 |  Country profiles

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