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Ogaden Rights Group Says Refugees in Somalia Face Roundup, Deportation

A group concerned with human rights in Ethiopia's eastern Ogaden region says refugees fleeing to neighboring Somalia are being rounded up by Somali authorities and handed over to Ethiopian troops. VOA's Peter Heinlein in Addis Ababa reports Ethiopia's government rejects the allegation.

A news release received at the VOA bureau in Nairobi says ethnic Somalis escaping an Ethiopian government crackdown in Ogaden face arrest and deportation. The release, issued by the Ogaden Human Rights Committee, alleges that Somali authorities are trading captured refugees in return for ammunition and materials or simply to prove loyalty and friendship to Ethiopia.

Senior Ethiopian government official Bereket Simon denied the allegation in a VOA telephone interview. Bereket says those arrested were terrorists.

"We have detained terrorists. We have detained members of terrorist groups. That is normal," he said. "And, we will do it again if we get the chance. I do not think we should be denied the right to defend ourselves. That is what we have been doing and if anybody translates this into human rights abuse, that is his problem, not ours."

Conflict has been raging in the eastern region of Ethiopia since April, when fighters of the Ogaden National Liberation Front attacked a Chinese-run oil exploration team. Seventy-four people were reported killed in the attack.

The impoverished region had been virtually closed to foreigners, including journalists and aid agencies, for months. But aid officials told VOA this week that food shipments have resumed and that fresh supplies are enough to feed needy people in the region for six months.

The cutoff of supplies had prompted human rights and aid groups to accuse the government of creating a humanitarian crisis. But Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi defended the action. Meles described the ONLF rebels as "cold-blooded murderers" bankrolled by neighboring Eritrea, and vows they will be crushed.

The ONLF says it is fighting for greater autonomy for the mostly ethnic Somali people of the region.

The Ogaden region is considered the poorest in Ethiopia. It is home mostly to Somali nomads. The predominantly Muslim area has kept its own distinctive identity, doing most of its trading with Somalia and the Middle East, rather than with the rest of Ethiopia.