Ethiopia today expelled a private French relief organization that repeatedly has accused the government of pursuing a forced resettlement scheme that allegedly has caused the death of thousands of famine victims.
The expulsion of Doctors Without Borders marks the first time since the famine emergency began last year that the government has ordered a relief agency out of the country.
"They are wasting our time, and they are wasting the resources of the French people by spending their money on political activities. They are undermining everybody in the relief effort here," said Berhane Deressa, deputy director of the government Relief and Rehabilitation Commission.
Berhane, who said in an interview tonight that Doctors Without Borders "does not exist anymore in Ethiopia," ordered the government to take over the organization's four medical and feeding operations in Welo Province, a famine-stricken area in the Ethiopian highlands.
The agency's medical coordinator reacted angrily here tonight to an expulsion he said his Paris-based organization had expected.
"We are not a blind humanitarian organization. We do not work in a country at any price," said Dr. Bertrand Desmoulins, who is in charge of 25 French doctors, nurses and logistics officers in Ethiopia.
In a series of statements that were highly publicized in Europe in recent weeks, Doctors Without Borders has accused the United Nations' emergency operation in Ethiopia of covering up abuses the government's resettlement scheme, which has moved nearly 600,000 persons from famine areas in the north to southwestern Ethiopia. The French agency also has charged that between 50,000 and 100,000 famine-weakened people have died as a result of being transported to the south forcibly.
The claims of the French group, however, are disputed by the United Nations and by donor governments, such as the United States, which are often critical of Ethiopia's famine-relief efforts.
Donors here say that Doctors Without Borders has no evidence to back up its charges about the deaths of thousands of resettled people. In recent weeks, several donors, both private and governmental, have said that the French agency appeared to want to be kicked out of Ethiopia.
The agency, which operates in 30 countries with 350 doctors and nurses, has demanded a "moratorium" on the resettlement scheme. The program is a major priority of the Marxist government here.
When Ethiopia announced the program last fall it promised that resettlement would be voluntary and that families would be kept together. According to relief workers, however, the program has not been voluntary in thousands of cases, and many families have been split up.
During the past year, Doctors Without Borders has been willing to say publicly what many relief agencies would say only anonymously.
In April, the agency declared that a cholera epidemic had broken out in several northern feeding centers. Other relief agencies confirmed the report but refused to do so publicly, fearing expulsion.
Several relief officials here, none of whom would agree to be quoted by name, have said in recent days that Doctors Without Borders often pointed out legitimate problems in the government's famine-relief programs but that the agency just as often took its criticism beyond what it could back up with facts.
Berhane said tonight that "the threats" and "atmosphere of uncertainty" created in recent months by Doctors Without Borders had interfered with the agency's ability to take care of famine victims.