An Ethiopian rebel group has sent a statement to reporters saying its fighters killed 140 government troops in an operation Saturday. VOA's Peter Heinlein in Addis Ababa reports a government official vigorously denied the claim.

Information Ministry spokesman Zemedhun Tekle described the Ogaden National Liberation Front statement as a falsehoods spread by ONLF supporters in Europe.

The statement sent to reporters by e-mail could not be independently confirmed. It said a force of nearly 1,000 rebel fighters attacked a government force escorting a ruling party official Saturday near the town of Warder, about 700 kilometers southeast of Addis Ababa.

The brief statement said the attack was in response to the burning of a village in the region by government forces. Communication in the area is poor, and VOA was not able to ascertain the condition of the village.

Spokesman Zemedhun said the government does not believe the rebels have the ability to stage such attacks.

"As usual, the ONLF is trying to get media attention," he said. "Otherwise, we do not have such an information and we believe that the ONLF is not in a position where it can inflict such harm on Ethiopian forces."

The ONLF is an ethnic Somali group that has been waging a mostly low-level insurgency for more than 20 years in the arid eastern region of Ethiopia bordering Somalia. They came to prominence earlier this year with an attack on a Chinese-run oil field that killed more than 70 people.

That raid and other attacks on civilians prompted international condemnation of the rebels. But the government's response drew even more criticism. The group Human Rights Watch accused the government of cutting off food and medicine supplies to the Ogaden, creating a humanitarian crisis. Government officials said the crackdown was only aimed at ensuring that aid shipments were not diverted to the rebels.

United Nations humanitarian officials have reported conditions in Ogaden easing in recent days. The top U.N. officer in Addis Ababa said this week government officials had given assurances humanitarian activities in the region would be unrestricted.