Ethiopia’s Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) rebels said they killed 140 government soldiers in a weekend assault targeting a visiting senior official, a statement Ethiopia immediately denounced as false.
The rebels, who want more autonomy in their eastern region of Ethiopia bordering Somalia, said the attack on Saturday wounded other troops protecting the senior official and resulted in the seizure of ammunition and other military hardware.
Both sides routinely claim to inflict large numbers of casualties on the other, but the reports are difficult to independently verify in the remote region.
”This operation was a direct response to the burning of Caado village recently and the continuing abuses against the people of Ogaden,” the ONLF said in a statement on Sunday.
The government immediately dismissed the rebel report as false information spread by ONLF supporters in Europe ”who do not know the situation on the ground”.
”The ONLF is not in a position to launch such an attack at this juncture. This is an attempt to hoodwink international opinion. Such things have never happened,” Information Ministry spokesperson Zemedhun Tekle said.
The official the ONLF said was targeted was Abay Tsehaye, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s senior adviser for regional affairs. The ONLF said Abay escaped via helicopter with military officers after rebels blocked the roads.
The ONLF is an ethnically Somali group and is active in the eastern part of Ethiopia. The insurgency began in 1984 and has persisted at a low level since then.
It accuses the government of routinely harassing the population in the Ogaden and humanitarian organisations have confirmed reports of soldiers burning villages or restricting the flow of aid to the population.
Ethiopia calls the ONLF a terrorist organisation backed by foe Eritrea. Though Asmara denies backing rebels, analysts say it funds and trains insurgent groups opposed to the Ethiopian government, which Eritrea fought in a 1998 to 2000 border war.
Rebel activities have increased since Ethiopia helped the interim Somali government eject a militant Islamist movement from power over the New Year, and a United Nations report says Eritrea has been increasing its support to rebels as a result.
The ONLF in April attacked an oil field run by a Chinese company, killing at least 74 people including six Chinese oil workers.
The government responded with a major crackdown that drew criticism from humanitarian organisations that said it was blocking aid shipments. Ethiopia said it was ensuring that aid was not given to rebels or their supporters.
This week, the United Nations announced it had reached agreement with the government that would speed up aid flows and ensure relief supplies went to the neediest people. – Reuters