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"Fresh controversy over aid to Ethiopia erupted today after an investigation concluded that millions intended for victims of the 1984 famine was diverted to anti-government rebel leaders – including the current Ethiopian Prime Minister.

The allegations, made by former rebel compatriots of Meles Zenawi, are the first to detail how millions raised by Bob Geldof’s Live Aid were siphoned off to arm the rebels against the army of Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Although millions of people were saved by the Western aid that poured into Ethiopia after Live Aid, the evidence from the BBC investigation suggests that not all of it went to the most needy.

With much of Ethiopia in rebel hands, aid agencies had to bring in food and funds for those areas from Sudan, accompanied by rebel fighters.

Aregawi Berhe, the former military commander of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), claimed that of the $100 million that went through the rebels’ hands, 95 per cent was diverted to buy weapons or recruit Ethiopians to their cause. He said the rebels put on a "drama" to get their hands on the relief money. "The aid workers were fooled," he said.

Another former associate of Mr Meles described how rebel commanders posed as merchants in meetings with Western charity workers to get access to the aid money.

One aid worker, Max Peberdy, said he had carried nearly $500,000 in Ethiopian currency across the border to give to the rebel’s own relief organisation, Rest, for the purchase of grain to take place under his supervision.

Twenty-five years later, he maintains that the money could not have been diverted, insisting there was a separation of power between the rebels’ military wing and its relief efforts.

But Gebremedhin Araya, a former senior rebel leader, told the BBC that he had tricked the money out of Mr Peberdy by posing as a merchant and handing over bags of sand instead of grain to the rebel relief officials.

"I was given clothes to make me look like a Muslim merchant,” he said. “This was a trick for the NGOs." He said that the money he received was handed over to TPLF leaders, including Mr Meles.

The findings are backed by CIA reports which alleged that rebel groups were using their own relief organisations as a front to divert money to their military wings.

“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,” a confidential CIA report concluded in 1985.

Organisations such as Charity Navigator and the makers of the 2000 documentary The Hunger Business had previously claimed that Mr Mengistu’s armouries were equipped by diverted Western aid.

Mr Meles became Ethiopia’s President, and later Prime Minister, in 1991 following Mengistu’s defeat by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, an umbrella front that included the TPLF.

Mr Meles remains a controversial recipient of Western aid today, praised for his success in lifting rural Ethiopians out of poverty but disliked for his perceived interference on where aid goes and questionable human rights practices, including the withholding of foreign food aid in the separatist Ogaden region.

Mr Meles's office declined to comment on the allegations. The two men interviewed by the BBC fell out with the leadership years ago and have fled the country.

Mr Peberdy still believes that none of the aid was diverted. "It's 25 years since this happened and it's the first time anybody has claimed such a thing."


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