The Ethiopian government released a blanket denial tonight of what it called "the shockingly big lie about the alleged burning" of Ibnet, which until last weekend had been the country's largest famine relief camp.
The statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is contradicted by taped accounts from relief workers who said they witnessed the burning and evacuation of the camp, condemned the Reagan administration for using the incident as a pretext "to go berserk once again on this usually familiar anti-Ethiopian campaign of denigration, disinformation and falsification."
Last week M. Peter McPherson, director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, criticized the events at Ibnet as "barbaric" and called for discipline of those responsible.
The government's statement, first released last night to the East German news agency ADN and to the British Broadcasting Corp. in London, was not available to foreign correspondents here until tonight.
Reporters who went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to pick up the statement earlier today were told that it was being revised. It was the original version, however, that was released later.
The statement, repeating parts of an earlier government account, said that only 30,000 of the camp's residents had left and that they left "of their free will." The government had put the total camp population before last weekend at 50,000, but relief officials said it was 60,000.
"Before their departure they were furnished with sufficient food to eat, seeds to plant and farm implements," the statement added. "Assistance continued to be provided for 25,000 drought-affected compatriots."
Relief workers for World Vision and Concern, two agencies operating at Ibnet, said this week that all but about 3,000 camp residents had been forced out of the camp by soldiers who burned the grass huts the refugees had been living in. Many of those forced to leave, relief workers said, were weak from illness and lack of food. Relief workers also said that, while some food was given the evacuees, World Vision personnel were prevented from giving them clothing or seeds.
Relief workers also said they saw soldiers beat two camp residents to death, that two pregnant women miscarried while being chased by soldiers, that grass huts were set afire while people were inside them and that 17 bodies were counted on a road outside the camp on Monday, the second day of the three-day evacuation.
The Ethiopian statement said that the "allegation that the feeding station was razed to the ground was the most incredible aspect of the fabulous story. Leaving aside the utterly groundless insinuation, there has been no burning of dwellings, although what has taken place was the clearance of accumulated dirt for hygienic purposes."
The U.N. World Food Program and the U.S. Embassy here have photographs of the scores of grass huts -- called tuculs -- that were at Ibnet prior to last weekend. A delegation of U.N. and Ethiopian government officials and two reporters who visited Ibnet Thursday found piles of ashes on the ground where the huts had been.
The original report on the Ibnet evacuation, in The Washington Post on Wednesday, made clear that permanent structures at the camp such as kitchens and food warehouses, were not damaged by soldiers.
Tonight's statement described the evacuation of Ibnet as "a well thought-out measure undertaken on the decision of the Ethiopian government."
Kurt Jansson, the U.N. assistant secretary general for emergency operations in Ethiopia and the leader of the delegation that visited Ibnet Thursday, said yesterday that he was satisfied that the decision to evacuate the camp was made not by central government officials but by local leaders of the Workers' Party of Ethiopia in Gondar Province, where the camp is located. After returning from Ibnet Thursday, Dawit Wolde Giorgis, Ethiopia's top relief official, said there would be no future camp evacuations without consultation with international relief agencies.
Tonight's statement did not mention this.
Asserting the sovereignty of Ethiopia, the statement said, "It is the highest of folly for officials of the U.S. administration to hope against hope that the policies of the Ethiopian government on relief matters, resettlement or any other related issues have to be formulated in Washington."