By Jason McLure
Feb. 20 (Bloomberg) — At least 45 people died in clashes between Ethiopia’s army and the separatist Ogaden National Liberation Front in the east of the country, government and rebel spokesmen said.
The ONLF said its ethnic Somali fighters killed 140 Ethiopian soldiers and allied militia members in battles over the past five days near the towns of Fik and Degehebur, according to an e-mailed statement from the group. In addition, 29 ONLF members died in the fighting, it said.
“The area around Degehebur is now completely in the hands of the ONLF, as is the area around the city of Fik,” it said.
Ethnic Somali rebels from the ONLF are seeking autonomy for Ethiopia’s Somali region, an arid tract of land twice the size of England, which is also known as the Ogaden. In June, New York-based Human Rights Watch accused the Ethiopian government of burning villages, executing civilians and raping women in an effort to quell the ONLF’s insurgency. Ethiopia denied the allegations.
Ethiopia’s government disputed the ONLF’s version of the latest fighting.
“This is completely wrong,” Ermias Legesse, Ethiopia’s state minister for communications, said in a phone interview today from Addis Ababa, the capital. “The regional peoples fought with the ONLF and they killed more than 45 ONLF soldiers.”
Legesse said three or four innocent people died in the fighting. He said he couldn’t respond to an ONLF claim that Ethiopian attack helicopters have been active in the region.
Ethiopia claimed the Ogaden region in the late 19th century through a series of agreements with Italy and the U.K., which colonized much of modern-day Somalia. Ethnic Somalis from the Ogaden clan have opposed Ethiopian rule, and fighting in the region surged after the ONLF killed 73 Chinese and Ethiopian workers at an oil exploration site in the region in April 2007.
Ethiopia accuses neighboring Eritrea of backing the ONLF and has in turn backed Somali militias from rival clans to fight the rebel group.
Ethiopia has banned journalists from traveling independently in the region and rejected a United Nations call for an independent assessment of human rights atrocities.