ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Rebels in Ethiopia’s Somali Region said on Thursday they had seized a town from government troops and freed two U.N. workers who had been missing since an ambush on a U.N. convoy two weeks ago.
The ethnic Somali province, more commonly known as the Ogaden, is home to a low-level insurgency led by the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), which has been fighting for independence since 1984.
The U.N. World Food Programme had said one of its drivers was killed and another injured when gunmen ambushed the convoy on May 13, and two other WFP workers were missing.
Government authorities and the ONLF have accused each other of carrying out the attack. The ONLF said it had been an attempt to silence WFP employees who had witnessed government operations that killed civilians.
“The Ogaden National Liberation Army of (the) ONLF has captured the town of Galalshe in Jigjiga Region near Babili,” the group said in a statement that did not disclose any dates.
The rebels said they had inflicted casualties on government troops while also capturing armaments and ammunition.
“The (ONLF) army found hundreds of civilian prisoners detained in the Galalshe jail who had been tortured and badly treated. Among the prisoners found were the two WFP workers abducted by the Ethiopian Army,” it added.
Authorities were not immediately available for comment, but they often dismiss the rebels’ claims as baseless propaganda.
WFP spokeswoman Judith Schuler said the agency could not confirm the release, but that it had partially resumed operations in the region, which were suspended after the incident.
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.
Ethiopian forces waged an offensive against the rebels in late 2007 after the ONLF 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.