Ethiopian rebels claim killing of more than 270 troops

NAIROBI (AFP) — Ethiopian rebels said Sunday they had killed more than 270 government troops in a week of attacks in the volatile Ogaden region, where the army is attempting a crackdown.

Their claims could not be independently verified as journalists and aid workers are blocked from accessing the region, which borders lawless Somalia. Ethiopian officials often deny such statements from the rebels.

"In the period 26 October through 1st November these engagements resulted in over 270 troops killed with an unconfirmed number wounded," the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) group said in a statement.

"Five military transport vehicles were destroyed by RPG-7s (rocket propelled grenades). The transport vehicles were full of troops when they were struck resulting in a high number of casualties," it added.

The rebels said the attacks were a response to the actions of Ethiopian forces, which they accused of carrying out summary executions, detaining nomads, and shooting dead livestock.

They reported a surge of clashes over the past two weeks.

"This increase appears to be a coordinated and deliberate escalation in armed conflict initiated by the (ruling) TPLF (Tigrayan People's Liberation Front) regime despite the humanitarian crisis in the Ogaden," said the statement.

The Ethiopian army launched a crackdown in the region, about the same size as Britain with a population of about four million, following an attack by the ONLF against a Chinese oil venture in April that left 77 people dead.

Last month, the ONLF claimed its fighters had killed 390 government troops in the area. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi denied the claims and there was no independent confirmation.

In September, a UN fact-finding panel recommended an independent probe into allegations that the army had committed human rights abuses during its operation there.

The ONLF has repeatedly warned that another "African genocide" was unfolding in the region, where it said thousands of displaced civilians had fled to neighbouring Somalia without essential supplies over recent months.

The Ethiopian army has flatly rejected the claims, and says its campaign does not target civilians but the rebels whom it accuses of "terrorist" activities.

Addis Ababa has expelled Doctors Without Borders and the International Committee for the Red Cross from Ogaden for allegedly meddling in politics, a charge they both deny.

Authorities have imposed a trade blockade on the impoverished region since June, with few goods -- including food -- permitted into the area, according to Human Rights Watch.

The barren Ogaden region, neighbouring lawless Somalia, has long been extremely poor, but the discovery of gas and oil has brought new hopes of wealth as well as new causes of conflict.

Ethiopia accuses arch-foe Eritrea of supporting Ogaden separatists. The authorities in Asmara deny this.

Formed in 1984, the ONLF is fighting for the independence of ethnic Somalis in Ogaden, whom they say have been marginalised by Addis Ababa. The eastern region borders Djibouti, Kenya and Somalia.