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Ethiopia's Leader Downplays Attack By Rebel Group

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has shrugged off claims by a rebel group that it has killed more than 250 government troops in clashes during the past few days. VOA's Peter Heinlein in Addis Ababa reports on Mr. Meles's comments during a speech to parliament.

The Ethiopian leader did not directly address claims by the Ogaden National Liberation Force that they have humiliated government troops in two separate incidents in the eastern region close to the border with Somalia.

In a message e-mailed to journalists Sunday from London, the ONLF said it had ambushed government troops near the town of Warder, about 700 kilometers east of Addis Ababa. The message said 140 soldiers had been killed, forcing the emergency evacuation of Abay Tsehaye, a senior aide to the prime minister who was visiting the region. A follow-up e-mail received Tuesday, said a second day of battles had boosted government losses to 250.

The message gave no figures for rebel casualties, saying only that they had been 'light'.

Mr. Meles mentioned the reports while answering questions in Parliament. He did not refute the reports of heavy government losses, but made light of the ONLF. claim that they had encircled the army troops and forced his aide Abay Tsehaye to flee in a helicopter.

Mr. Meles chided the international media for publicizing the incident.

"This week Ato [Mr.] Abay is supposed to have been surrounded by the ONLF, and the international media did reflect that, and it seems the international media is truly concerned about these things," Mr. Meles said. "Well, Ato Abay, who is here. We are together, Abay Tsehaye, together in same office. He was surrounded by the ONLF. and that I was not surrounded by the ONLF, is very strange indeed."

The prime minister accused the ONLF. of refusing to negotiate. He vowed to press ahead with the campaign launched earlier this year against the rebels after they killed more than 70 people in an attack on a Chinese-run oil facility. He did not directly acknowledge government losses in the fighting, but did speak of the 'ultimate sacrifice' made by some soldiers in the region of Ethiopia officially known as the Somali National State.

"The sacrifices paid in this area is not our military only, but more importantly, more serious sacrifice is being paid by the pastoralist people of the Somali National State," Mr. Meles said. "They are chasing the ONLF, until this force is out of the game completely, until the ONLF. comes back to the peaceful path, we are doing a very successful work around the Somali National State, and regarding the ONLF. it should soon be completely over."

Most foreigners, including journalists have been barred from the remote region since the government crackdown, and reports of fighting have been impossible to verify.

The ONLF. is demanding greater autonomy for the arid region bordering Somalia. Western analysts believe the rebel force numbers several thousand armed fighters.

Ethiopia accuses rival Eritrea of backing the Ogaden separatists, and of fueling unrest in other parts of the country. Eritrea has repeatedly denied the claim.