NAIROBI (AFP) — Ethiopian rebels on Sunday claimed they had killed at least 140 government troops in an attack in the Ogaden region, where the army is carrying out a crackdown.

The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) said in a statement that almost 1,000 of its fighters attacked Ethiopian troops near Wardheer early Saturday, killing more than 140 of them, with “many more wounded”.

However, the government rejected the claims as “fabrication”.

The troops were escorting Abay Tsehaye, a senior official in the Ethiopian ruling party, when they came under attack. Wardheer is about 650 kilometers (400 miles) southeast of Addis Ababa.

“Abay Tsehaye and a few senior officers escaped by helicopter after all land routes out of the area were blocked by ONLF forces,” the ONLF statement said.

“Thousands of rounds of ammunition and military hardware, including communications equipment, were captured by ONLF forces during the operation,” it added.

It was impossible to confirm the claims. Journalists and aid workers are blocked from visiting the area, where the military is battling insurgents.

But the government flatly denied them. “It is another usual fabrication from that group. They (rebels) are trying to lie to the world that they capable of such attacks,” information ministry spokesman Zemedkun Tekle told AFP.

The rebels said the attack was “a direct response” to the burning of a village, Caado, and “abuses” of people in the Wardheer area by Ethiopian troops.

The army launched a crackdown on the region, which is about the same size as Britain and has a population of about four million, following an attack by the ONLF against a Chinese oil venture in April that left 77 people dead.

Last month, a United Nations fact-finding panel recommended an independent probe into allegations that the army had committed rights abuses during the operation.

The ONLF has repeatedly warned that another “African genocide” was unfolding in the region, where it said thousands of displaced civilians had fled to neighbouring Somalia without essential supplies over recent months.

The Ethiopian army has flatly rejected the claims, and instead said its campaign is not targeting civilians, but the rebels whom it accuses of carrying out “terrorist” activities.

Addis Ababa has expelled Doctors Without Borders and the International Committee for the Red Cross from Ogaden for allegedly meddling in politics, a charge they both deny.

Authorities have imposed a trade blockade on the impoverished region since June, with few goods — including food — permitted into the area, according to Human Rights Watch.

The barren Ogaden region has long been extremely poor, but the discovery of gas and oil has brought new hopes of wealth as well as new causes of conflict.

Ethiopia accuses arch-foe Eritrea of supporting Ogaden separatists, which alongside another rebel group, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), have been battling the government in the impoverished Horn of Africa nation.

The authorities in Asmara deny these claims.

Formed in 1984, the ONLF is fighting for the independence of ethnic Somalis in Ogaden, whom they say have been marginalised by Addis Ababa.

The OLF was part of Ethiopia’s transition government during 1991-95, after the fall of the Marxist regime of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam.

But after numerous disputes, it quit and started fighting for the creation of an independent state to be called Oromia.