ADDIS ABABA, 19 July (IRIN) - An armed rebel group waging a bloody guerrilla war in lawless eastern Ethiopia on Tuesday offered a truce to end its decade-old fight against the government.
The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) offered peace talks in a neutral country to try to bring an end to the fighting that has plagued this arid region.
The decision was announced in a statement following the exchange of letters between Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Ogadeni clan elders in an attempt to secure peace in one of the poorest and most remote parts of the country.
Key elections are scheduled to take place in the region in just over a month, which could tip the balance in Ethiopia's 15 May national elections, where partial results have the government and opposition parties on level pegging.
"The ONLF is ready to engage in negotiations with the government in order to find a just and lasting solution to the conflict between the people of the Ogaden and Ethiopian regime if such talks are conducted in a neutral country," the statement said.
"It is also vital that an internationally recognised entity is present to moderate the process," it added.
In a separate statement, Ethiopia's foreign affairs ministry said the government would "respond positively" provided the rebels laid down their arms.
"Community elders and clan leaders have requested the government for its readiness to hold discussions with ONFL to support its efforts and help it realise its peace initiatives," the ministry said.
The rebels, ethnic Muslim Somalis, have fought for the secession of the Ogaden region, an area of four million people, since the early 1990s.
An expert on the ONLF, Medhane Tadesse, said rapprochement with some factions of the rebel group had taken place in recent weeks.
"The ONLF is a group that has created serious instability in the region," Medhane, author of 'Political Islam and the Black Economy', said.
Insecurity in the Ogaden, which borders Somalia, is one reason why national elections held in the rest of the country on 15 May were delayed in the region until August.
Peace talks between the Ethiopian government and the rebels have broken down in the past, with both sides blaming each other.
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