June 28, 2011 / 4:55 PM / in 6 years

Ethiopia's ONLF rebels say U.N. staff handed over

* Workers were in ONLF hands since May

* Workers transferred near Somali border

By Aaron Maasho

ADDIS ABABA, June 28 (Reuters) - Two staff of the U.N. food agency who went missing in Ethiopia last month have been handed back, according to a rebel group that says it rescued them but is accused by the government of ambushing them in the first place.

Government authorities and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) each blamed the other for a May 13 attack in which the U.N. World Food Programme said one of its staff was killed, one injured and the pair of Ethiopian nationals went missing.

The ONLF said last month that it had “rescued” the two from jail after it captured a town in the arid region from government troops. The government dismissed the claim.

“The Ogaden National Liberation Front has transferred the two WFP staff members to WFP representatives near the border of Somalia on June 27 2011,” the group said in a statement on Tuesday.

The group did not specify the exact location of the release, saying in another line that the handover took place outside Ethiopia.

Government and U.N. officials were not immediately available to comment or confirm the release.

The area is facing a drought-induced food crisis. The United Nations last month appealed for $75 million in food and other aid for 2 million people in Ethiopia’s southern regions.

Journalists and aid groups cannot move unhindered in the area, making the allegations very difficult to verify.

The ONLF has been fighting for independence since 1984 in the Somali Region of Ethiopia.

Ethiopian forces waged an offensive against the rebels in late 2007 after the group attacked a Chinese-run oil facility, killing 74 people. Analysts say the rebels were weakened but are still able to launch hit-and-run attacks.

Ethiopia says the Ogaden basin may contain 4 trillion cubic feet of gas and major oil deposits. (Editing by George Obulutsa and Mark Trevelyan) (For more Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: af.reuters.com/)

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