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NAIROBI (Reuters) - Eritrean rebel groups are building a joint military front to depose a government they say is pursuing ethnic persecution and becoming a growing threat to regional security, an opposition leader told Reuters.
The Red Sea Afar Democratic Organisation (RSADO) -- one of many opposition movements based in nearby Ethiopia -- said the government of President Isaias Afwerki targets ethnic groups, such as the Afars, and will soon face military attacks.
The African nation allows no opposition groups inside the country and rights groups say thousands of political prisoners are detained in underground jails without charge.
"Innocent Eritreans are being hunted down like animals and this has to stop," RSADO's leader Ibrahim Haron said in remarks made by telephone and in e-mail exchanges.
"During the past two years the Eritrean government has killed at least 300 innocent Eritrean ethnic Afars ... Hundreds of others are in secret jails, or whereabouts unknown," said Ethiopian-based Haron.
The Afars live mainly in northern Ethiopia but also in neighbouring Eritrea and Djibouti.
Officials from the Eritrean Ministry of Information could not be immediately reached for comment.
The government says rebel groups are traitors who have belittled "the struggle": a 30-year war for independence fought and won against much larger and better funded Ethiopian forces.
Rebels celebrate President Isaias for his role as a guerrilla leader during the war which ended in 1991, but say he has betrayed its ideals by not sharing power. Isaias says he has no plans to allow elections in Eritrea or permit opposition.
Eritrea is on the cusp of a gold mining boom with some 16 foreign companies now operating in the country.
Rebel groups regularly say they have carried out attacks inside Eritrea but these claims are impossible to verify independently due to severe travel restrictions. Much of the country remains off limits to foreigners and many Eritreans.
RSADO says it has killed and wounded hundreds of government soldiers in attacks inside Eritrea since early 2009.
"Isaias has ruined the nation. Unless his regime is deposed the world will witness another Somalia in the Horn of Africa," Haron said. "He is a threat to security in the region."
Somalia, which is beset by violence and piracy, is without an effective government and much of the country is controlled by Islamist groups, including one linked to al Qaeda.
In December, the United Nations imposed sanctions on Eritrea for provoking insecurity in Somalia and Djibouti. Eritrea strongly denies the allegations and accuses Washington of fabricating the charges.
RSADO -- formed in 1998 -- is now a member of an alliance of Eritrean rebel groups, the Eritrean Democratic Alliance (EDA), which says it plans to depose Isaias by force.
"A joint military front is about to be established ... massive military actions will follow," Haron said.
EDA spokesman Qernelios Osman told Reuters that a strong military front would be ready within six months. "We need to coordinate and unite all our forces and do some visible, tangible and productive measures against the regime."