Ethiopia’s government said on Monday it recaptured a famous United Nations World Heritage site that had been invaded by masked men in the past week, calling it the “red line” to halt continued harassment by rebels.
The statement came after Ethiopian troops stormed the Hargeisa, capital of breakaway breakaway Somaliland, which reported about 1,300 people kidnapped from remote outposts in two days of conflict on Friday.
“The liberation of the town of Hargeisa sends a strong deterrent message to the other hostile forces,” said Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian prime minister, in a statement. “The timing and nature of the attack make it necessary to wage war now.”
The main rebel group, the Ogaden National Liberation Front, or ONLF, controls a large stretch of southeast Ethiopia, including the Hargeisa region, which is home to tens of thousands of mostly black ethnic Somali population.
A group of masked gunmen seized villagers in the region on Thursday, and beat several people to death on Sunday after looting shops, markets and homes, Reuters witnesses said.
Ethiopian troops backed by hundreds of Ethiopian soldiers and armored personnel carriers swept into the town on Monday after a leader of the rebels released a written appeal to abandon his fighters.
A Reuters reporter saw two armoured personnel carriers conducting flag marches at the side of a road near the town.
Hargeisa is Ethiopian territory, but it is surrounded by Somaliland on the north, a pro-Ethiopian entity on the west and the Ogaden’s main province of Yoland, which has been shut to foreigners since civil war broke out in 1984.
The rebels, who are fighting for autonomy, are also seen as close to Somalia’s Islamist insurgents, who have announced the entry of their al Shabaab group into the Ogaden.
Ethiopia is the second most powerful country in the Horn of Africa, but its relations with some minority populations are fractious, and it has often been accused of ethnic discrimination.
Ethiopia is seeking a U.N. Security Council resolution to force Ethiopia’s breakaway Somaliland region into an “economic and administrative state,” but the move is opposed by the current government in Mogadishu.