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Rebels Accuse Puntland Government of Returning Ethiopians to Face Torture

An Ethiopian rebel group has accused the government of Somalia's semi-autonomous Puntland region of detaining Ethiopians and handing them over to Ethiopian security forces. The Ethiopian government denies the accusation that follows similar reports of increased security cooperation between Ethiopia and Puntland. Derek Kilner reports for VOA's East Africa bureau in Nairobi.

The Ogaden National Liberation Front, which is waging an insurgency in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia that borders Puntland, said Puntland officials detained several Ethiopians from Ogaden on May 1, handing at least five over to Ethiopian officials.

The Ogaden National Liberation Front says the incident was part of a broader security agreement between Puntland and Ethiopia to send Ethiopians suspected of involvement with the rebels into Ethiopian custody.

The May 1 incident follows a trip by Puntland's president Adde Muse to Ethiopia last month and has been reported in the Somali media in recent days. But Bereket Simon, advisor to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, denies the existence of an agreement with Puntland.

"Basically, we cooperate with regional governments in many respects," Simon said. "Of course, fighting terrorism is a common agenda for all of us because terrorism is a menace in this part of the world. But we have no deals that infringe on the rights of citizens. So basically, it is a wild accusation."

Last month, the Ogaden National Liberation Front said two of its members were arrested by Puntland authorities and delivered to Ethiopian officials. The rebels say such actions violate international law, because the detainees face a substantial risk of torture or execution by the Ethiopian government.

Puntland officials have denied those claims. VOA was unable to reach Puntland officials for comment on the rebel's recent accusations.

The Ogaden National Liberation Front has been operating for more than two decades in Ethiopia's Ogaden, an ethnically Somali region that has been contested in the past by the government's of Ethiopia and Somalia.

Many Ethiopians displaced by the conflict have fled across the border to Puntland, and Ethiopia says members of the Ogaden National Liberation Front have organized operations from Puntland.

Puntland has warm relations with Somalia's Transitional Federal Government, whose president, Abdullahi Yusuf, is a former president of Puntland and has supported Yusuf's cooperation with the Ethiopian government. But Puntland has generally avoided the conflict that has wracked southern Somalia, and the extradition of Ethiopian citizens is seen as a new development.

Ethiopian troops have occupied Somalia since December 2006, when they backed Somalia's Transitional Federal Government in wresting control of the capital Mogadishu from the Islamic Courts Union. But since then, a variety of Islamist and clan-based groups have been waging a growing insurgency against the Ethiopian presence.

Ethiopian and Somali troops, and the insurgent groups have been accused of widespread human-rights abuses in the conflict.