Somali women fighters from the Ogaden region of Ethiopia.
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire File Photos
Monday, November 19 NAIROBI(AFP)-Ethiopia's air force has been "carpet-bombing" villages and nomadic settlements in its oil- and gas-rich Ogaden region, leaving a trail of casualties, separatist rebels in the restive eastern area said Sunday.
"Since Friday the Ethiopian air force has carried out continuous air sorties on the area of the lakes called in Somali Haro Digeed," Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) spokesman Abdirahman Mahdi said.
The air force "has been carpet-bombing the villages and nomadic settlements," an ONLF statement said.
"Many people are hurt or dead and lots of animals have been killed," he said, but did not say whether the fatalities were rebel fighters or civilians.
"The army decided to change tactics and use air assault because they realised their ground forces could not make it," he said, adding the air force was still pounding the region late Sunday.
"Some ONLF fighters were hurt in the air bombardments, but the air force targeted civilian settlements and livestock," the spokesman said, adding that locals were fleeing the region amid bad weather.
On Friday, the Ethiopian army said it had killed some 100 rebels and captured hundreds others in Ogaden, near the frontier with lawless Somalia, over the past month.
But Mahdi said army has an "habit of summarily executing civilians and then counting them as ONLF dead."
"The Ethiopian Army had killed hundreds of civilians are imprisoned thousands and we believe that this is a ruse to fool the UN mission who are starting to investigate the situation in the Ogaden."
The rebels say they have made military gains in the recent months.
In October, the UN announced that it had been allowed to collaborate with regional authorities to supply relief food, medicine, and veterinary services as well as setting up offices in a key town there.
Addis Ababa has expelled Doctors Without Borders and the International Committee for the Red Cross from Ogaden for allegedly meddling in politics, a charge both deny.
The rebel and army reports could not be independently verified as journalists and aid workers have repeatedly been blocked from accessing vast swathes of the volatile region in recent months.
The Ethiopian army launched a crackdown in the region after ONLF rebels attacked a Chinese oil venture in April that left 77 people dead.
Many refugees have since fled to Somalia, saying authorities have imposed a trade blockade, with few goods -- including food -- permitted into the area.
Human rights groups said the crackdown resulted in numerous human rights violations in the region and subsequent UN fact-finding mission called for an independent investigation.
Addis Ababa routinely rejects rights violation claims, saying its troops are pursuing "terrorists."
The barren Ogaden region has long been extremely poor, but the discovery of gas and oil has brought new hopes of wealth as well as new causes of conflict.
It is about the same size as Britain with a population of about four million.
Ethiopia accuses arch-foe Eritrea of supporting Ogaden separatists, which the authorities in Asmara have denied.
Formed in 1984, the ONLF is fighting for the independence of ethnic Somalis in Ogaden, whom they say have been marginalised by Addis Ababa.