Washington, D.C. — Leaders of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (OLNF), a rebel group fighting against the Ethiopian government, have accused the Ethiopian army of committing crimes "tantamount to genocide."
Responding to a claim made by the government that the ONLF is a terrorist organization, the front's chairman, Mohamed Osman, told allAfrica in an interview: "The real terrorists are the Ethiopian government."
Osman and the ONLF's foreign relations secretary, Abdirahman Mahdi, spoke to allAfrica's Washington, D.C. office this week. They were visiting the United States to meet with members of the diaspora, non-governmental organizations, and lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
The armed wing of the ONLF has been fighting for self-determination, and against the current government in the Ethiopian state of Somali, since 1993.
Osman and Mahdi said Ethiopia's army is committing widespread war crimes, including destroying over 100 villages and lynching over 30 people, in the Ogaden region in the east of Ethiopia.
They also said that a recent United Nations mission sent to the Ogaden did not receive complete access; they contend that the UN mission was not allowed to visit the Doollo and Fik regions, the areas where the worst atrocities have been committed.
Additionally, they allege that before the mission went to the region, opponents of the Ethiopian government were rounded up, arrested and sent to military camps. The United Nations mission is expected to release its report later this week.
"We challenge the government to allow independent observers," Madhi said. "Democracy does not bar information."
The Ethiopian government has repeatedly denied charges of rights abuses in the Ogaden, claiming that the reports are lies and propaganda spread by its enemies.
The crisis in Ogaden has escalated in recent months. In April, the ONLF attacked a Chinese oil site in the region, killing 77 people, including nine Chinese oil workers. Asked about the attack, Osman said "the exploration [for oil] was not a civilian operation. It was a military garrison." He also said that he was "sad" that the Chinese were caught in the middle.
Observers were surprised that the OLNF was able to carry out such a daring attack, and many suggest that Ethiopian troop cuts in the Ogaden since the invasion of Somalia have given the ONLF a window of opportunity.
After the attack on the Chinese oil site and a string of other ONLF attacks in the region, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced on June 9 that the Ethiopian military was starting a "political and military operation" to contain ONLF activities.
In July, a Human Rights Watch statement accused the government of widespread rights abuses. "Ethiopian troops are destroying villages and property, confiscating livestock and forcing civilians to relocate," said Peter Takirambudde, Africa director of Human Rights Watch. "Whatever the military strategy, these abuses violate the laws of war."
In the same statement, Human Rights Watch said that the ONLF targets civilians in their attacks. The OLNF representatives denied the charges during the interview. They acknowledged that civilians sometimes die, but contended that the government had armed civilians and said Human Rights Watch does not have full information.
The OLNF representatives also addressed charges that the ONLF had stolen food aid in the past. Mahdi said local people had given them the food. He also contended that a government-enforced blockade has "stopped cross-border trade" in most of the region. Observers estimate that food prices have doubled or tripled in the region because of the blockade.
Many analysts say that the conflict in the Ogaden is closely linked to the wider conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Mahdi acknowledged that the OLNF received "political sympathy" from the Eritrean government and others in the region, but said it received no military aid from Eritrea.
The ONLF representatives said that they are open to talks with the Ethiopian government, providing the talks have a neutral, third-party facilitator, and take place at a neutral venue. They said that they would welcome the United States playing a role.