ADDIS ABABA (AFP)— A faction of one of Ethiopia’s most active rebel groups seeking a separate state in the southeast of the country has agreed to lay down its arms, a government minister said Thursday.
A spokesman for the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) rebel group, which is seeking independence for the Ogaden territory, dismissed the claim of a peace deal as government propaganda.
Ethiopian Communications Minister Bereket Simon told AFP that “a significantly large faction of the ONLF has decided to work within the constitution of Ethiopia and to abandon the armed struggle.”
He denied any government military operation was under way in the restive Ogaden area, a vast area in eastern Ethiopia which is almost impossible to access independently.
“The faction discussed with members of the government possible ways of acting within the constitutional framework. From now it will function as a political party,” he said.
Members of the group will benefit from immunity, he said, adding that “no legal action would be taken, whatever their past actions.”
The faction reached the deal in talks in Germany, officials said.
But ONLF spokesman Abderahman Mahadi denounced the government announcement as a “farce,” speaking by telephone from Britain.
“They just gathered up a few people who had left the ONLF or been thrown out of it and they are pretending to be negotiating with the ONLF,” he told AFP.
“The government wants the international community to believe it is negotiating but that is not true,” he said. “The ONLF is not at all involved… at present in peace negotiations with the government.”
“This is simply Ethiopian government propaganda, it is not the reality,” the ONLF spokesman added. “The reality is that we are fighting them.
Formed in 1984, the ONLF is fighting for independence for the Ogaden, a southeastern region rich in natural resources and peopled mainly by Somali speakers whom it says have been marginalised by the regime in Addis Ababa.
The group has said in the past that it was ready to talk with the government through the mediation of a third country, a request so far rejected by Addis Abeba.
Last month Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said talks were under way with the rebels, without giving details. The claim was denied by the ONLF.