(Recasts, adds government, human rights group)
By Tseyaye Tadesse
ADDIS ABABA, Aug 8 (Reuters) - Ethiopia said on Wednesday it had killed more than 500 rebels and captured 170 in the past two months during an offensive in the volatile but energy-rich Ogaden region bordering Somalia.
The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) dismissed the statement as an attempt by the government to lull oil companies interested in the region into a “false sense of security”, and urged foreign firms to stay away.
The local president of Ogaden, Abdullahi Hassan Mohammed, said Ethiopian security forces had killed 502 ONLF fighters in a two-month military campaign against the “terrorists.”
“Rebel activities in the region... have been eliminated,” he added in a statement.
But the ONLF, which carried out a deadly attack on a Chinese-run oilfield in the area in April, said the government was trying to hide the fact that it had lost control of Ogaden.
“Pursuing oil and natural gas exploration activities in Ogaden at this stage can only be characterised as gross corporate irresponsibility,” the rebels said.
In the attack on the Chinese-run oilfield, they killed 74 people and kidnapped seven workers.
“Recent claims that the government has been able to realise military gains are designed to give a false sense of security to oil companies,” the ONLF added in its statement.
The rebels say they are fighting for self-determination for their home region, an arid land of mainly nomadic herders.
Addis Ababa calls the ONLF a terrorist group supported by arch-foe Eritrea, and the army has sent large numbers of troops to the region in an effort to root out the rebels.
Also on Wednesday, an Ogaden-based rights group urged the United States and the European Union to intervene to stop what it said were killings, rapes, torture and starvation carried out or caused by Ethiopian troops.
The Ogaden Human Rights Committee, which calls itself independent, urged the United Nations to censure Addis Ababa and to designate a safe haven for those fleeing “senseless carnage.”
“The Ethiopian government should be held responsible for mass killings, disappearances, rape, arbitrary arrests, torture,” the group said in a report from its Geneva office.
Citing victims’ accounts, the group said it had documented 2,395 extrajudicial killings, 1,945 rapes and 3,091 forced disappearances in the region since 1991, when the current government came to power.
“The Ethiopian government... encourages, decorates and promotes violators to higher ranks,” the report said. (Additional reporting by Laura MacInnis in Geneva and Nicolo Gnecchi in Nairobi)