Addis Ababa, Reuters – The Ethiopian government confirmed on Wednesday that insurgents had attacked an army base five days before national elections, but denied the rebels had seized control of the garrison town.
The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), which wants autonomy for the Ogaden region and its ethnic Somali population, said on Tuesday it had captured the garrison town of Malqaqa and killed 94 soldiers.
“Some insurgents belonging to the ONLF have tried to attack our local militia and the police,” government spokesperson Shimeles Kemal said.
“In retaliation, the militia was able to defeat the attack completely, killing all of the rebel forces. Only minimal casualties have been sustained by our local militia. No garrison town has been captured,” he said.
Reporters and aid groups cannot move freely in the area without government escorts and regular accusations from both sides are hard to verify.
The Ogaden region is said to contain mineral deposits and foreign firms including Malaysia’s Petronas and Vancouver-based Africa Oil Corporation are exploring for oil. The ONLF regularly warns foreign firms against prospecting.
Ethiopian forces launched an assault against the rebels – who have been fighting for more than 20 years – after a 2007 attack on an oil exploration field owned by a subsidiary of Sinopec, China’s biggest refiner and petrochemicals producer.
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.
The ONLF accuses the Ethiopian military of killing and raping civilians and burning villages in the region as part of its effort to root out them out.
In November, the group said it had captured seven towns in the region and killed almost 1 000 Ethiopian troops.
The government confirmed then that the rebels had launched an assault but Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told reporters they had been “crushed”.
The government has also said that neighbouring Eritrea may try to spoil the May 23 elections using Ethiopian rebel groups. Ethiopia accuses its arch-enemy of funding the ONLF.
Ethiopia’s last elections in 2005 ended with street riots after the ruling party and the opposition both claimed victory.
The government said the violence was planned by the opposition to force unconstitutional change. Security forces killed 193 people and seven policemen also died.