A rebel group in Ethiopia's restive Ogaden region says it has killed 626 government troops in heavy fighting near the border with neighboring Somalia. The government has dismissed the claim as 'a complete fabrication'.
A communiqué sent to news agencies by e-mail says a multi-front offensive launched by the Ogaden National Liberation Front November 10th is still in progress. The communiqué, believed to be sent from ONLF offices in Europe, says 626 Ethiopian troops have died, and the statement says the battlefields are littered with bodies of soldiers.
It describes ONLF casualties as 'minimal', but gives no details.
An rebel communiqué issued Friday said the rebels had captured seven towns along the border with Somalia.
The reports could not be independently verified. Journalists are not permitted into the region. But Ethiopian government spokesman Shimelis Kemal called the ONLF claims completely false. In a telephone interview, he described the communiqués as a desperate measure used occasionally by the rebels to portray the region as being in turmoil.
"This group used to make exaggerated claims," said Shimelis Kemal. "This is the usual lie, deliberately fabricated by this terrorist group."
Shimelis denied any government troops had been killed, and said the current fighting is between the rebels and local militia groups.
"The rebels were expelled and defeated by the local militia," said Shimelis. "The army was not involved there."
Ethiopia calls the rebels 'terrorists' backed by neighboring rival Eritrea, and with ties to the Somali insurgent group al-Shabab. Eritrea and the ONLF both deny the links, and there is no independent verification of the charges.
Government troops launched a fierce offensive against the ONLF in early 2007 after the rebels attacked a Chinese owned oil exploration field in Ethiopia's Ebole district, killing 74 people.
The ONLF accused the troops of conducting a 'scorched earth' campaign, a claim that was strongly denied by the government.
The United Nations twice requested access to the region to conduct independent human rights assessments. Ethiopia refused the requests.
Government spokesman Shimelis said that 2007 offensive effectively ended the ONLF's military capability.
"Since the Ebole incident, the ONLF bandit group is on the run," he said. "Recently however, they have tried to raid some administrations in the localities, and that attempt had been effectively defeated by the local militia."
Ethiopia has recently attempted to assure oil companies the ONLF no longer has the ability to threaten exploration and production in the Ogaden region. But Ethiopia's mines and energy minister was quoted this week as saying no petroleum reserves had been found in the country despite years of search.
The ONLF has been fighting for greater autonomy or independence for the Ogaden since Ethiopia seized the mostly Somali speaking region in a war with Somalia more than 30 years ago.