About 600 high school students have crossed from Ethiopia into Kenya during the past week, claiming the Ethiopian government is harassing them.

A spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Emmanuel Nyabera, says the students fled their boarding school after a crackdown by the Ethiopian security forces.

Mr. Nyabera says the students told U.N. officials the security forces started arresting students who were protesting the housing of soldiers in their dormitories.

Mr. Nyabera says U.N. refugee officials are meeting with Ethiopian government representatives and others to determine whether it would be safe to send the students home.

"Our priority at the moment is to discuss with the Kenya government and with the Ethiopian government to ensure that they return in a dignified and secure manner back to Ethiopia," he explained.

Failing that, says Mr. Nyabera, the students who qualify for refugee status can stay at refugee camps in Kenya.

Mr. Nyabera says it is not clear why the soldiers are being billeted in the schools' facilities.

The students told U.N. refugee officials they think there is also an ethnic dimension to the crackdown.

"They were saying that they were being targeted also because almost all of them are Oromos," he said.

The Ethiopian government has had long-running battles with the Oromo Liberation Front, a southern rebel group that wants the area to separate from Ethiopia. The group, along with human rights organizations and others, has charged that the Ethiopian government represses and discriminates against ethnic Oromos.

Attempts by VOA to contact Ethiopian government officials for comment were not successful.

News agencies quoted Information Minister Bereket Simon as accusing the Oromo Liberation Front of promising the students money and scholarships to schools in the United States and Canada if they crossed the border into Kenya and claimed that they were being persecuted.

Mr. Bereket urged the students to come home, saying they have done nothing wrong.