* Govt says rebels may try to disrupt election
* Ethiopia votes on May 23
By Barry Malone
ADDIS ABABA, May 18 (Reuters) – An Ethiopian rebel group said on Tuesday it had captured an army base and killed 94 soldiers, five days before national elections the government has warned rebel groups may try to disrupt.
“Special Forces of the Ogaden National Liberation Front captured Malqaqa, a strategic garrison along the road between Jigjiga and Harar,” the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) said in a statement.
“The Ethiopian regime’s forces lost 94 soldiers and casualties of the ONLF were minimal given our forces had the advantage of the element of surprise.”
Government comment was not immediately available.
Ethiopia’s last elections in 2005 ended with street riots after the ruling party and the opposition both claimed victory. The government said the violence was planned by the opposition to force an unconstitutional change.
Security forces killed 193 people and seven policemen also died then.
The ONLF wants autonomy for the Ogaden region, whose population is ethnic Somali. Ethiopia calls the ONLF “terrorists” supported by regional rival Eritrea.
The ONLF accuses the Ethiopian military of killing and raping civilians and burning villages in the region as part of its effort to root out insurgents.
The regular accusations from both sides are hard to verify. Journalists and aid groups cannot move freely in the area without government escorts.
Ethiopia’s foreign ministry said in a statement on Sunday that Eritrea had been planning a number of ‘terrorist’ plots to undermine the elections.
“Ethiopia’s patience towards regional spoilers has its limits,” the statement said. “It is good to remind the likes of Eritrea not to be oblivious to this.”
The Ogaden region is said to contain mineral deposits and international firms including Malaysia’s Petronas [PETR.UL] and Vancouver-based Africa Oil Corporation (AOI.V) are exploring its deserts for oil. The ONLF regularly warns foreign companies against prospecting.
Ethiopian forces launched an assault against the rebels — who have been fighting for more than 20 years — after a 2007 attack on an oil exploration field owned by a subsidiary of Sinopec, China’s biggest refiner and petrochemicals producer. (Editing by Charles Dick)