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Ethiopia Rebel Group Says It’s Holding Two Abducted United Nations Workers

Ethiopia’s rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front said it is holding two World Food Programme workers who have been missing since May 13 and plans to hand them over to the United Nations agency.

“We have the two WFP workers,” ONLF spokesman Abdirahman Mahdi said in a phone interview from London today. “We will hand them over to the United Nations or any other relevant body as soon the conditions on the ground allow us to.”

The pair went missing in the eastern Somali region after an attack on their convoy in which one worker died and another was injured, according to the WFP. The government and the ONLF, which has been fighting for self-determination of the Ogaden area of the region since 1984, accused each other of carrying out the armed ambush.

The WFP doesn’t have any confirmation that its two staff members have been freed, Judith Schuler, the agency’s spokesman in Ethiopia, said in a phone interview today from Addis Ababa. “The search for them is ongoing.”

The ONLF said it attacked a prison in Galalshe, about 395 kilometers (245 miles) east of the capital, Addis Ababa, where the WFP workers had been detained after being abducted by Ethiopia’s army. The two were among hundreds of people freed from the jail following clashes early yesterday morning that resulted in “heavy” casualties for state forces, the banned organization said in an e-mailed statement.

‘Absolute Lie’

“It’s an absolute lie,” Communications State Minister Shimeles Kemal said in a phone interview from Addis Ababa today. “The group is fractured into factions and the majority of factions are involved in peaceful negotiations. The hardcore element is splintered and trying to attract publicity by making false statements.”

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s administration signed a cease-fire with a faction of the group in October and released 402 ONLF fighters from prison in January.

Shimeles said in the past two days, Ethiopian special police ambushed an armed wing of the ONLF about to attack Galalshe and killed more than 70 fighters. Three policemen were killed in the incident, he said.

The government last month issued an appeal backed by aid agencies for $75 million to provide emergency help to 2 million people in the south and southeast of the Horn of Africa nation amid a drought. Emergency deliveries have resumed in some parts of the region after they were suspended following the attack, Schuler said.

To contact the reporter on this story: William Davison in Addis Ababa via Nairobi at pmrichardson@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Richardson in Nairobi at pmrichardson@bloomberg.net.

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