ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Ethiopian rebels said on Friday the military had killed 71 civilians in the last month as part of a growing crackdown in a region where international oil and gas companies are exploring.
“The Ethiopian army combed the countryside, summarily executing men in front of their families while beating, raping or killing the women,” the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) said in a statement.
“The ruthless troops have so far massacred 71 innocent civilians.”
The government dismissed the rebel statement, the latest in a series of tit-for-tat accusations over the Ogaden region, where the ONLF wants more autonomy and regularly demands that foreign firms leave.
Firms including Malaysia’s state-owned Petronas and Vancouver-based Africa Oil Corporation are already looking for deposits in the Ogaden’s vast deserts. Commercial amounts of oil and gas have not yet been extracted.
“We are investigating the claims,” Ethiopian government spokesman, Shimeles Kemal, told Reuters.
“But our initial investigation indicates that the allegation is baseless. It’s the usual lies. There is no fighting in that area.”
The Ethiopian government has confirmed skirmishes with the rebels in the past six months but the regular accusations from both sides are hard to verify. Journalists and aid groups cannot move freely in the area without government escorts.
Ethiopian forces launched a massive assault against the ONLF — which has been fighting for more than 20 years — after a 2007 attack on an oil exploration field owned by a subsidiary of China’s Sinopec Corp, Asia’s biggest refiner.
Analysts say the rebels are incapable of ousting the government but can hamper development and weaken security forces in the Ogaden with hit-and-run attacks.
A British geologist was shot dead in April in the region while working for IMC Geophysics International, subcontracted to Petronas. The ONLF denied involvement and the government said ‘bandits’ were responsible.
In November, the group said it had captured seven towns in the region and killed almost 1,000 Ethiopian troops and government-allied militiamen. The government confirmed the rebel assault but Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said they had been ‘crushed’.
The separatist cause has been fuelled by widespread resentment at the region’s low level of development. Until Chinese engineers arrived in 2006, the entire region had just over 30 km (20 miles) of tarmac road.
Editing by George Obulutsa and Philippa Fletcher