Rebels fighting for independence in Ethiopia's Ogaden region say they
are stronger than ever, a day after the government said the insurgency
is in tatters.
A statement e-mailed to news organizations Wednesday says the operational capacity of the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front is higher than at any point since its anti-Ethiopia insurgency began.
The e-mail, apparently sent from ONLF offices in Europe, says rebels in the arid stretch of eastern Ethiopia along the Somalia border have defeated every major Ethiopian military campaign in the past two years.
The statement was in response to comments from Ethiopia's Communications Minister Bereket Simon, who told reporters that government troops are on the verge of crushing the rebels.
"The situation in Ogaden has developed in such a way that when the ONLF has lost too much ground. And at this point we can say the ONLF is very weakened and in a state of crisis," he said.
Bereket said government political and counterinsurgency operations have undermined the ONLF's popular support.
"The situation in Ogaden is improving by the day," he said. "People are interested in developmental activities and taking matters into their own hands. The government assessment is that the ONLF will find itself in a very difficult situation."
The ONLF statement described Bereket's comments as "wishful thinking," aimed at instilling a false sense of confidence in oil exploration companies the government is trying to lure back to the Ogaden region.
Ethiopia stepped up counterinsurgency operations in the Ogaden nearly two years ago, after the rebels attacked a Chinese-run oil exploration facility, killing 65 Ethiopians and several Chinese nationals.
Industry analysts say no oil has been discovered in the Ogaden.
The government restricts journalists access to the region, and there is little verifiable information about the strength of the rebels or the level of fighting.
The U.S. group Human Rights Watch last year issued a report accusing government troops of staging public executions and burning villages in their counterinsurgency campaign. The report was based on eyewitness accounts.
Ethiopia responded with its own report charging the Human Rights group with using flawed methods that resulted in unsubstantiated and inflammatory allegations. The government rebuttal noted that Human Rights Watch investigators had not visited the Ogaden, and that some of the people listed as dead in the report had later been found alive.
Independent verification of the ONLF's strength on the ground is impossible, but the group is known to have strong backing among Ogadenis living overseas, many of whom are refugees. Hundreds of sign-carrying ONLF supporters staged noisy demonstrations outside the G20 summit site in London last week to protest the presence of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.