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Ethiopia Claims Gains Over Eastern Rebels

07 August 2007

Ethiopia's government is claiming near victory over a rebel group that has waged war against it in eastern Ethiopia, just days after bombs killed one person and wounded at least eight in the region's capital. Nick Wadhams has more for VOA from Nairobi.

The government says the Ogaden National Liberation Front was behind the two bomb blasts Sunday in Jijiga, the latest sign of years of turmoil in the troubled eastern region.

Last month, Ethiopia expelled the International Committee of the Red Cross and it has barred journalists from traveling outside of Jijiga in the Ogaden. Human-rights groups say the the Ethiopian government is cracking down on civilians as it tries to chase down the Ogaden National Liberation Front.

Ethiopian government spokesman, Zemedkun Tekle, repeated Ethiopia's denials of rights abuses in the Ogaden. He told VOA News the government has captured most of the members of the group, which gained widespread notoriety when it killed 74 people during an April attack on a Chinese-run oil facility.

"You know, our security forces are hunting them, and at this time we do have results that we are getting to make them not to affect the peaceful conditions around that region," he said. "A lot of them have been destroyed."

The rebel group rejects the claim and has blamed Sunday's bomb blasts on the government, calling it "a despicable act of desperation by cronies of the Ethiopian regime."

The Ogaden National Liberation Front says government agents are setting off bombs in the region to justify the crackdown. It is calling for the United Nations to intervene.

The rebel group's spokesman in London, Abdirahman Mahdi, says the Ethiopian government is forcibly conscripting young men to fight the Ogaden National Liberation Front. He says the ONLF is stronger than before.

"They did not even touch 1/10th of one percent of ONLF forces. We can actually tell you we are 10-times stronger than before because all the people are now very angry," said Abdi. "That is why they are so desperate now trying to force the people to fight us. They have called all the elders, and they have told them that they must bring young men to fight the ONLF."

Ethiopia's government has been accused in the past of pressing young men into military service to fight disparate rebel groups across the country.

The Ogaden National Liberation Front was founded in 1984 to fight what it says is the brutalization of ethnic Somalis by the Ethiopian government.

The government crackdown on the rebel group began after Ethiopian forces invaded Somalia in December in support of the interim government there and against the Islamic Courts Union. The Ethiopian government says the Islamic Courts Union was allowing Ethiopian rebel groups to maintain bases across the border.

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