( 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 troops, with "many more wounded".
Wardheer is about 650 kilometers ( 400 miles) southeast of Addis Ababa.
"Thousands of rounds of ammunition and military hardware, including communications equipment, were captured by ONLF forces during the operation," it added.
The army officers were escorting Abay Tsehaye, a senior official in the Ethiopian ruling party, when they came under attack.
"Abay Tsehaye and a few senior officers escaped by helicopter after all land routes out of the area were blocked by ONLF forces," it said.
It was impossible to confirm the claims. Journalists and aid workers are blocked from visiting the area, where the military is battling insurgents.
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 ONFL said.
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.
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. The authorities in Asmara deny this.
Formed in 1984, the ONLF is fighting for the independence of ethnic Somalis in Ogaden, whom they say have been marginalised by Addis Ababa.