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Ethiopia, Rebels Trade Charges Over British Geologist's Killing

Ethiopia's government and a separatist group are trading accusations over the killing of a British geologist and two armed escorts in the country's troubled Ogaden region.

Thirty-nine-year old Jason Reid and two Ethiopian military guards died when their car was attacked by gunmen last Monday in a remote part of Ethiopia's eastern Somali region, known as the Ogaden. Reid was a geologist involved in exploring for oil in the area near the border with Somalia.

Authorities say a gun battle ensued when the victims tried to fight back. Their car, reportedly was riddled with bullets.

Government spokesman Shimelis Kemal describes the killers as 'highwaymen' intent on robbery. He says some of the attackers were captured. "Mr. Jason and his escorts were going to their camps after completing their day's work. The bandits ambushed and attacked them, and the law enforcement officials made a hot pursuit and were able to apprehend three of the suspected attackers," he said.

Ethiopian troops have been battling a long-running insurgency in the mostly ethnic-Somali region. The counterinsurgency effort was intensified in 2007, after rebels of the Ogaden National Liberation Front, or ONLF, attacked a Chinese-run oil exploration camp, killing more than 70 people.

In a statement emailed to VOA, the ONLF denies involvement in the latest attack. The statement condemned the killing as the work of local militias organized by the government to fight the insurgents.

Government spokesman Shimeles calls the ONLF accusation "an absolute lie." "They were simply outlaws, people engaged in robbery and illicit activities," he said.

Gavin Cook, spokesman for the British embassy in Addis Ababa, says Reid had been doing seismic surveys for a subcontractor for the giant Malaysian energy firm Petronas. Cook says it is too early to tell who might have been behind the attack or whether it was related to the insurgency. "We don't want to speculate at the moment. There are a number of groups that operate in the region, but no one has claimed responsibility. There's nothing to suggest as yet whether one or any of them was responsible or whether it was a random attack. But we are working with the government to try and establish more details," he said.

The news of Reid's death came the same day as Ethiopia announced the surrender of another rebel group in the region. A government spokesman said the little-known United Western Somalia Liberation Front, or UWSLF, had agreed to lay down arms and join the political process.

The UWSLF was a powerful force in the 1960s and '70s, and had threatened violence against foreigners exploring for oil in the region. But it has rarely been heard from in recent years.

Their last known activity was the brief kidnapping of two Red Cross workers in 2007. The captives were released after a few days with an apology and an admission that the incident was a case of mistaken identity.