By Barry Malone
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Ethiopia’s ONLF rebel group denied on Tuesday that almost 300 of its fighters were surrounded in Somaliland after landing on the breakaway region’s coast following training in Eritrea.
The assertions were made by Somaliland’s army and its police force on Tuesday. The officials also said the Ethiopian military had joined the battle. Ethiopian government spokespeople were unavailable for comment.
ONLF sources in Ethiopia told Reuters the reports were lies.
“This is untrue,” a senior ONLF member said. “There are no ONLF units in Somaliland. There are no ONLF units outside the borders of Ethiopia.” An ONLF-linked website also denied that ONLF fighters were in Somaliland.
“There is politics and Ethiopian favour-seeking motives behind the spread of this rumour,” Ogaden Online said.
The ONLF wants independence for Ethiopia’s mainly ethnic-Somali Ogaden region and has warned international oil and gas companies to stay away or face attack.
Firms including Petronas and the Vancouver-based Africa Oil Corporation are exploring the Ogaden for potential oil and gas reserves.
“This is the largest number of insurgents to enter the country,” the commander of Somaliland’s army, Nouh Ismail Tani, told Reuters. “Their destination was Ethiopia but they were using our country as a crossing point. A joint operation is going smoothly. I hope it will not take more than 3 days.”
Somaliland officials said the men had guns and were carrying 64 rocket launchers. Some of them had Eritrean currency and documents that proved they were trained in Eritrea, police commander Elmi Roble Furre said.
Eritrea has long denied financing rebel groups in Ethiopia and Somalia. Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a 1998-2000 border war that killed at least 70,000 people, and relations between the two have been bitter since.
The United Nations sanctioned Eritrea in December, accusing it of financing Somalia’s Islamist al Shabaab rebels. Eritrea denies that.
Ethiopian forces launched an assault against the ONLF — who have 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 refinery.