ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Leaders controlling about half the forces of a separatist rebel group in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region have agreed to make peace, the government said on Saturday, but the rebel group denied there had been any deal.
The Ogaden National Liberation Front is fighting to make the predominately ethnic Somali region an independent state and has frequently threatened international oil and gas companies.
“On June 12th a meeting was held in Germany between government representatives and representatives of an Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) faction led by Selahadin Mao,” said Abay Tsehaye, national security advisor to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
“They have agreed to abide by the constitution. We have accepted on our part to give amnesty to all their leaders and rank and file members.”
The ONLF denied in a statement that there was any agreement.
“The Ethiopian government claim that it had concluded a deal with a large ONLF faction is a self-serving blatant lie intended to mislead the international community,” the rebels said.
“The real stance of ONLF will be proven by actions in the political and military battlefields.”
Firms including Malaysia’s state-owned Petronas and Vancouver-based Africa Oil Corporation are looking for deposits in Ogaden, although commercial amounts of oil and gas have not yet been extracted.
Abay said the ONLF leaders would now discuss the agreement with supporters before signing an accord within three months. He estimated the number of ONLF fighters at 250 before the split and said the breakaway faction controlled about half of them.
“They split partly because one group is very attached to the Eritrean government,” Abay told reporters. “The group that opted to make itself at a distance from the Eritrean government is in a position to act more freely and wants peace.”
Eritrea and Ethiopia fought a border war from 1998-2000.
The Ethiopian government has reported some skirmishes with the rebels in the past six months, but regular accusations from both sides are hard to verify. Journalists and aid groups cannot move in the area without government escorts.
Ethiopian forces launched a large-scale 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 not capable of ousting the government but can hamper development and weaken security forces in the region with hit-and-run attacks.