WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Satellite images confirm reports that the Ethiopian military has burned towns and villages in the remote Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia, the American Association for the Advancement of Science reported on Thursday.
Eight sites in the rocky, arid region, which borders Somalia, have clear signs of burning and other destruction, the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program said.
The commercially available images corroborate a report by Human Rights Watch, also issued on Thursday, that uses eyewitness accounts of attacks on tens of thousands of ethnic-Somali Muslims living in the area, 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 the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
"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," he said.
Ethiopia, a key regional ally of the United States, launched its latest offensive after the Ogaden National Liberation Front attacked a Chinese-run oil field in the region in April 2007, killing more than 70 people.
Ethiopian government officials in Addis Ababa routinely reject allegations against their counter-insurgency operations and accuse the rebels of abusing locals.
Lars Bromley, project director for the Science and Human Rights Program at AAAS, said his team analyzed several before and after satellite images of villages identified by Human Right Watch as possible locations of human rights violations.
They found eight, mostly in villages and small towns in the Wardheer, Dhagabur and Qorrahey Zones, that appeared to have been burned or destroyed recently.
For example, in the town of Labigah, 40 structures identified in a September 2005 image were gone in images taken in February 2008. In the Human Rights Watch report an eyewitness said the Ethiopian army "went into every village and set it on fire."
Such reports are nearly impossible 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 said.
It is also difficult to tell what is going on in some villages, AAAS said.
"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."
AAAS has used satellite images to support reports of widespread abuses in Myanmar, Zimbabwe, Burma, Chad and the Darfur region of Sudan.
The report is available on the Internet at shr.aaas.org/.
Reporting by Maggie Fox; editing by David Wiessler