An Ethiopian rebel group said Thursday that the army and a police unit killed at least three dozen civilians in a crackdown in an ethnically Somali region of Ethiopia. A government official called the allegations baseless.
Abdirahman Mahdi, the spokesman for the Ogaden National Liberation Front, accused Ethiopian security forces of attacking villages near oil exploration sites.
The Ethiopian region known as Ogaden, which borders Somalia, has been mired in a low-level insurgency since the early 1990s, when the ONLF intensified its attacks against Ethiopian troops in a fight for greater autonomy.
"It is a random killing aimed at terrorizing the public," Mahdi said from his office in London. "This is the first time security forces turned up in villages, rounded up villagers and killed them in brutal manners."
Relatives who spoke to The Associated Press said the recent killings occurred near Degahbur town.
Mohamed Gure, the information minister for the regional Somali government, denied that such killings took place, calling the allegations "baseless propaganda."
But a 21-year old in the region, Aden Ahmed Abdi Hassan, told AP by phone that his brother, Hure, was killed by policemen who smashed his head with a stone.
The name Hure appeared on a list of 37 people the rebel group said had been killed between May 7 and Monday. The group says another 60 people are missing. The World Food Program said a staffer was killed in the same region last week.
Hassan said that in addition to his brother, he saw the dead bodies of 11 others.
"We are under occupation and I think there is a plan to obliterate us from the Earth," he said. "I'm now hiding. They are after me. I want to flee to Kenya."
Accounts of the killings could not be independently confirmed, but human rights groups have repeatedly accused the Addis Ababa government of human rights violations in Ogaden, and of denying aid groups free access to the region. Journalists are prohibited from traveling freely in the region.
In its 2010 report on human rights in Ethiopia, the U.S. State Department said there were "credible reports of involvement of security forces in the killings and other abuses of civilians" in the Somali region of Ethiopia.
"Reliable reports indicated that special police and local militias, both accountable to the Somali regional government, forcibly relocated whole villages believed to be supportive of the ONLF," said the report. "Reliable sources reported increasingly violent ONLF attacks on police and military elements during the year."
Ben Rawlence, a Horn of Africa researcher with Human Rights Watch said: "Until Ethiopian government allows independent access to Ogaden, no body would know the truth of what is happening in the region. But based on the Ethiopia's record in the region, one can be forgiven for assuming the worst."
Ethiopia, an American ally, is one of the world's largest recipients of development aid, with the EU, U.S., U.K, and Germany being the largest bilateral donors, said Human Rights Watch. Ethiopia received more than $3 billion in 2008, the group said.