|The Ogaden National Liberation Front says it is fighting for improved rights
for the region’s ethnic Somali population
Ethnic Somali separatists have been fighting government forces in the east of Ethiopia for more than 13 years now, but the long-running conflict has been largely invisible as Addis Ababa has restricted access to the region.
There have been numerous clashes between the Ogaden National Liberation Army (ONLF) and the military in recent months, with both sides claiming successes.
The whole world can now see what they are doing to us. Killing and starving us to death”
But with few journalists in the vast and sparsely populated region that borders Somalia, it is difficult to get an accurate picture of how frequently the fighting occurs and its toll on human life.
However, Al Jazeera gained exclusive access to the region and found that youths, angry at the treatment of the local ethnic Somali population the government, were flocking to join the separatists.
“I joined the militia in 2002. I’m ready to lose my life for the sake of my country, my people and my religion,” Hahdi Waa, one of ONLF’s fighters, said.
And die he did, apparently killed in fighting with Ethiopian troops just a few day after Al Jazeera met him.
Ethiopia launched a crackdown on the ONLF after its fighters attacked a Chinese oil exploration project in the Somali region in April last year.
The attack left at least 65 Ethiopians and nine Chinese workers dead.
Human Rights Watch says that civilians have borne the brunt of the military response, with whole villages razed to the ground as well as public executions, rapes and torture.
“They also imposed a commercial blockade on the affected region and confiscated livestock – the main asset in this largely pastoralist region – exacerbating food shortages,” the group’s 2008 world report says.
Tens of thousands of people have reportedly fled since the fighting intensified last year.
“The whole world can now see what they are doing to us. Killing and starving us to death,” Elyaas, an ONLF field commander, told Al Jazeera.
The Ethiopian government denies the accusations.
“I can assure you that the government is not in the business of killing people and putting them in mass graves,” Bereket Simon, a government spokesman, told the Christian Science Monitor newspaper in February.
The ONLF was formed in 1984, but many of its members had supported Somalia in a failed war with Ethiopia over the region in the 1970s.
The group’s aims have varied over time from increased autonomy in Ethiopia to outright independence to joining a “Greater Somalia”.
The Ethiopian embassy in London told Al Jazeera that the region already has a sizeable degree of autonomy and is the focus of several development initiatives.
It also said that there was no policy of refusing entry to the media.
“The ministry of foreign affairs is always ready to welcome journalists on legitimate news gathering assignments, journalists who are prepared to display the responsibility, integrity and truthfulness we would expect from employees of a newspaper,” it said in a statement.
Addis Ababa says the ONLF is a terrorist organisation that it has little support among the people of the Somali region.
It also says that regional rival Eritrea is providing the separatists with assistance.
However, the ONLF rejects the claims, telling Al Jazeera that rather than being supplied by Asmara, most of their own clothes and weapons were taken from dead soldiers.
Aid agencies have said that people are suffering severe food and medical shortages in Ogaden.
“There is the possibility of a very serious humanitarian crisis in the region as a consequence of the security situation,” John Holmes, the UN humanitarian chief, said.