ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Two Swedish journalists who illegally crossed into Ethiopia’s Somali Region with rebels in July have been charged with promoting terrorism, an official said on Wednesday.
Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye entered the province from neighbouring Somalia with a team of fighters from the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). They were subsequently wounded in a security operation which killed 15 rebels.
Addis Ababa has blacklisted the ONLF as a terrorist group, and recently-adopted anti-terror legislation outlaws “promotion” of the insurgents’ activities.
“State prosecutors have charged them with assisting and promoting terrorism professionally, engaging and participating in terrorist conducts, and entering the country illegally without a permit,” government spokesman Shimeles Kemal told Reuters.
Two rebel fighters detained during the operation also face the same charges, he added. The suspects will appear in court on October 17, a justice ministry spokesman said.
Envoys from the Swedish embassy in the capital were not immediately available for comment, but had previously confirmed they had access to the journalists.
The rebel group blamed the authorities in Somalia’s neighbouring semi-autonomous region of Puntland, which enjoys close ties with Addis Ababa, for the journalists’ arrest. They say Puntland notified Ethiopia of their movements.
The claims are difficult to verify because journalists and aid groups cannot move freely in the area.
More commonly known as the Ogaden, the ethnic Somali dominated province is home to a low key insurgency led by the group, which has fought for independence since 1984.
Apart from the low key rebellion, the arid region has also been the scene of a handful of kidnappings and banditry incidents during the past four years.
Government authorities and the ONLF each blamed the other for a May 13 attack in which one United Nations worker was killed and another injured. Another pair that went missing in the attack has since been found.
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 have since 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, but the rebels have warned of attacks against foreign firms who are working in the region.