By Andrew Heavens and Tsegaye Tadesse
ADDIS ABABA, May 28 (Reuters) - A grenade attack in Ethiopia's volatile Somali region on Monday wounded the local president, killed five people at a packed ceremony and sparked a stampede that left a further six dead, witnesses said.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government blamed the attack on the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), a separatist movement in the remote eastern area which last month attacked a Chinese-run oil exploration field, killing 74.
But the ONLF denied involvement in the attack.
Witnesses at the scene said the explosion took place right in front of local Somali region president Abdullahi Hassan, killing five people -- mainly musicians -- around him during the event at a stadium in the regional capital Jijiga.
Police then fired over the crowd, setting off a rush for the only exit that killed at least six children, the witnesses said.
Senior government official Bereket Simon said Hassan was injured in the leg by a grenade attack.
Speaking from Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, Bereket denied the deaths but said five people were killed elsewhere in the region by a booby-trap. That contradicted a local official of his government who said six had died in the Jijiga explosion.
"The culprit is none other than a member of the ONLF which is supported by Eritrea," Bereket told reporters of the chaos at the Jijiga ceremony marking the overthrow of former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.
Adurahmin Mohammed Mahdi, a London-based ONLF spokesman, said his movement had nothing to do with Monday's attack.
"Our policy is not to attack civilian targets or Jijiga," he told Reuters. "The ONLF attacks military targets only."
Aid agency sources said the attack took place while hundreds of people were in the stadium in Jijiga's Revolutionary Square.
An eyewitness in the crowd, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal in the heavily militarised region, said Hassan was hurled into the air by the blast.
"It was a huge explosion, bigger than hand grenades. It was like lots of dynamite," he told Reuters by phone.
"The president was speaking, surrounded by people from the band and a traditional dance group. Then the explosion happened and he was blown 10 metres away. Most of the people injured were from the band.... I saw five bodies later in the hospital."
Somali regional government information officer Nur Abdi Mohammed told Reuters 51 people had been injured in the Jijiga blast, of whom six later died in hospital of their injuries.
Police started firing after the blast, the witness said. "After the shooting, there was a huge stampede and some children were killed there -- I think six," he said.
An international aid worker in Jijiga, who asked not to be named, said the president was attacked with two grenades.
"Five people were killed on the spot then three people were killed afterwards when shooting broke out," he said. "We are all in our compounds, staying in to keep safe."
A sporadic but long-running conflict is under way in the country's Somali region between government forces and the ONLF, which wants more autonomy for the remote and under-developed area bordering Somalia.
Ethiopia says its neighbour and arch-foe, Eritrea, is training and arming the ONLF. Asmara denies that.
Tension mounted sharply in April when ONLF fighters killed 65 Ethiopians and nine Chinese oil workers in the raid close to Abole, a small town 120 km (75 miles) south of Jijiga.
Aid agency sources say government troops recently stepped up operations in three districts covering about half the region.
The sources, who asked not to be named, said aid workers now had to apply for permission to enter the affected region, delaying vital development work.
A three-person New York Times reporting team was detained in the region, interrogated at gunpoint and held for five days before being freed last week without charge, the newspaper said.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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