LONDON, June 11 (Reuters) - Ethiopian rebels accused government troops on Monday of raping women and destroying villages in the southeastern Ogaden region to suppress a separatist insurgency.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced a crackdown at the weekend against the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), whose fighters raided a Chinese-run oil exploration field in April, killing 74 people.
It was one of the bloodiest attacks in a sporadic but long-running conflict between government forces and the ONLF, which seeks more autonomy for its under-developed region bordering Somalia.
Abdirahman Mahdi, an ONLF founder-member, said he feared the government would use the operation as a pretext for oppressing Ogaden's ethnic Somali population, which has long complained of neglect and marginalisation.
"At the beginning they just used to harass ONLF members. Now they do blanket harassment. They are raping our women, killing our elders and burning our villages," Mahdi told Reuters in an interview.
"They want to punish the people. They cannot defeat the ONLF and now they want to start a scorched earth policy," he said in London, where he has lived for a decade.
Ethiopian officials were not immediately available for comment.
Mahdi accused Ethiopia, which sent soldiers to defend neighbouring Somalia's interim government, of violating human rights with impunity both at home and across the border.
"See what happened in Mogadishu -- a whole population was bombed. Who spoke out about it?" he said, referring to rounds of shelling in the Somali capital earlier this year.
"What we are worried about is that they will commit genocide in our own country -- and the international community will ignore it because their eyes are on Mogadishu."
Critics say Meles, once hailed as part of a new generation of African leaders, has grown increasingly authoritarian in the years since his rebel group shot its way to power.
Rights groups accused the government of repressing dissent before Ethiopia's last election in 2005 and say Meles has become more emboldened by U.S. support for his intervention in Somalia.
Mahdi warned of more violence to come.
"Our people are under siege. The only way is to fight, to become more vicious," he said.
"The situation will escalate because the Ethiopian government will only opt for the military solution. We have to show the world that Ethiopia does not control the Ogaden."
Mahdi denied any Islamist agenda or aspiration to establish a "Greater Somalia", calling it Ethiopia's "cheap propaganda".
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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