Rebels fighting for independence in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region said Monday that government troops have killed more than 100 civilians during a week-long military operation. The government called the charge “preposterous.”
The Ogaden National Liberation Front, or ONLF, called for a United Nations inquiry into what it says was a “shoot to kill” operation by Ethiopian forces in the eastern region.
In a statement, the rebels said government troops attacked U.N. World Food Program workers in the drought-stricken Ogaden last Friday, killing one person and kidnapping two others because they had witnessed soldiers engaged in mass murders.
It said at least 100 civilians died during the week-long government operation.
In a telephone interview, government spokesman Shimelis Kemal called the allegations "preposterous" and a sign of the rebels’ desperation. He said police had arrested several suspected ONLF members in connection with Friday’s attack on the aid workers. "The security forces who immediately went after the attackers had managed to arrest a number of suspected terrorists," he said.
Shimeles said ONLF fighters are believed to be holding the two missing U.N. workers hostages. "These are acts of terrorism. The police have suspicion that these are acts carried out by ONLF. We have information that they have taken two hostages," he said.
The competing claims could not be verified because Ethiopia sharply limits access to the Ogaden, where a counterinsurgency operation is in progress. The counterinsurgency campaign began four years ago, after an attack on a Chinese-led oil exploration camp killed 74 people. The government blames the ONLF for the attack.
In its statement Monday, the ONLF pledged to cooperate with an impartial investigation of the latest killings, if the probe is conducted by expatriate professionals or Interpol. In the past, the government has rejected calls for outside investigators. It dismissed a recent U.S. State Department report that says Ethiopia “restricts the ability to investigate” abuses in the Ogaden.
A worsening drought prompted authorities last month to increase their estimate of those needing emergency food aid in the region to 1.3 million - more than a quarter of the population.
The government recently refused to grant the International Committee of the Red Cross permission to resume its Ogaden operations. ICRC workers were expelled from the region in 2007 for allegedly aiding the rebels. The humanitarian group denies the allegation.