Ethiopia on Wednesday denied claims by the nation’s main rebel group that it had captured an army garrison town and killed 94 soldiers, just days before general elections.
“Special forces of the Ogaden National Liberation Front [ONFL] captured Malqaqa, a strategic garrison along the road between Jigjiga and Harar,” the ONLF said in a statement late on Tuesday without specifying the date of the attack.
“The Ethiopian regime’s forces lost 94 soldiers, and the casualties of the ONLF were minimal, given that our forces had the advantage of the element of surprise,” it said.
Government spokesperson Shemalis Kemal dismissed the statement.
“Contrary to the allegations, ONLF insurgents ambushed a local militia some days ago,” Kemal told the German Press Agency, dpa.
“Fifty-nine insurgents have been killed and 32 have been wounded. All wounded fighters have been captured.”
According to the government, the ONLF’s offensive capabilities have been seriously degraded since a crackdown on the rebel group that followed a deadly 2007 attack on a Chinese oil project.
The ONLF is fighting for independence for ethnic Somalis in the Ogaden region.
With only four days to go until general elections, the statement is being seen as an attempt to disrupt the process.
Human rights groups and opposition parties said the elections would not be free and fair and accused Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s government of suppressing political opposition.
In the aftermath of Zenawi’s hotly disputed victory in 2005, about 200 protestors were shot. An unknown number of opposition figures — including Birtukan Mideksa, head of the Unity for Democracy and Justice party — remained imprisoned. — Sapa-dpa