By Aaron Maasho, (Reuters) – Ethiopian troops have killed 15 fighters in the country’s Somali region in an operation that also led to the wounding of two Swedish journalists accompanying the rebels, an official said on Sunday.
More commonly known as the Ogaden, the ethnic Somali province is home to a low key insurgency led by the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), which has fought for independence since 1984.
The pair had crossed into the region on Thursday from neighbouring Somalia along with a team of ONLF fighters that plotted to carry out attacks in the province, government spokesman Shimelis Kemal told Reuters.
“Fifteen rebel fighters, all armed, were killed while six were injured. Two Swedish journalists got lightly wounded during the operation,” he said. “They are in custody at the moment, having received treatment for their wounds.”
Officials from the Swedish embassy in the capital were not immediately available for comment.
The ONLF said it lost contact with the journalists on July 1 and blamed authorities in the breakaway Somali state of Puntland for their arrest.
“(The) ONLF believes that these photojournalists are now in the hands of the Ethiopian government and fears for their lives and safety,” it said in a statement.
“The ONLF further condemns the Puntland authorities who facilitated the arrest and passed their information to Ethiopian security agents,” the group added.
The allegations are difficult to verify because journalists and aid groups cannot move unhindered in the area.
Apart from the low key rebellion, the arid region has also been the scene of several kidnappings during the past four years and a number of banditry incidents.
Two workers of the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) went missing in May following an ambush by gunmen.
Government authorities and the ONLF each blamed the other for a May 13 attack in which one U.N. worker was killed and another injured. The missing pair has since been recovered.
Ethiopian forces waged an offensive against the rebels in late 2007 after the group attacked a Chinese-run oil facility, killing 74 people. Analysts say the rebels were weakened but are still able to launch hit-and-run attacks.
Ethiopia says the Ogaden basin may contain 4 trillion cubic feet of gas and major oil deposits.