Part 3: Abuses by the Ogaden National Liberation Front

The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) has been responsible for serious abuses, including abductions, beatings, and summary executions of civilians in their custody, including government officials and individuals suspected of supporting the government.  

While its attacks are largely directed at the Ethiopian armed forces, it has at times conducted attacks against civilian areas and used landmines in a manner that indiscriminately harmed civilians. The ONLF also has threatened attacks on civilian commercial enterprises and imposed “taxes” on commercial trucks and convoys moving through rural areas under their control. Individuals who commit serious laws of war violations are responsible for war crimes.

Summary Executions and Attacks on Civilians by the ONLF

In early 2007 the ONLF, capitalizing on the Ethiopian military’s redeployment of troops to Somalia, attacked several major towns including Garbo (in Garbo wereda, Fiiq zone) and Gunagada (southeast of Dhagabur town, in Dhagahbur zone), followed by the even larger offensive on the Chinese-run oil installation near Obole town, west of Dhagahbur town. During and following these attacks, ONLF rebels beat and summarily executed persons in their custody.

The ONLF killed 25 people, including the local head of security, Sa’ad Aw Siyad, when it attacked Gunagada on January 19, 2007. They also abducted a number of officials. The police commissioner, Bedel Abdi Nor, and a regional member of parliament who was badly wounded, Mohammed Abdulahi Wafer, were later executed. Another five detainees were subsequently released.216

Garbo was also attacked in January 2007. At the time it was defended only by local militias, not Ethiopian military forces. The ONLF fighters demanded that the militia and local police hand over their weapons, but this demand was refused and local elders tried to mediate. The ONLF then attacked the police station, killing five local police officers and militia members before taking control and looting the weaponry. The ONLF fighters then departed with several abducted civilians, whom they later released.217

On April 24, 2007, the ONLF attacked the oil exploration facilities of the Chinese company, Zhongyuan Petroleum Exploration Bureau, a few kilometers from Obole town in Dhaghabur zone.218 As the oil facilities were a civilian enterprise, the attack violated the international humanitarian law against targeting civilian objects. It sparked the Ethiopian government’s stepped-up counter-offensive.

Hundreds of ONLF fighters attacked the oil installation before dawn, quickly overpowering the 50 or so Ethiopian army troops protecting the site during a 30-minute gunbattle. After routing the soldiers, the ONLF fighters entered the Obole oil installation, willfully killing approximately 65 Ethiopian nationals, most of them laborers, and nine Chinese technicians.

Eyewitnesses described to Human Rights Watch the numerous summary executions of civilians. Many of the Ethiopian workers and Chinese technicians were shot at point-blank range, when the ONLF fighters entered accommodation tents and found people trying to hide on the ground. Some were lined up outside their quarters and summarily executed. The victims included the camp nurse and three female cooks.219 A survivor said, “I thought they were kidnapping us when they took us out of the tent. But they even shot the Somali employees.” Some people were shot several times and bled to death.220

On the same day, the ONLF also attacked the nearby village of Sandhore, where a prominent local businessman, Ibrahim Haad, ran a sizeable farm. Ibrahim Haad reportedly provided militiamen for government counter-insurgency operations and used to have close relations with the regional security bureau. Eighteen people were killed during the attack, including a school teacher, a Koran teacher named Moalim Hassan, and several other civilians.221 While it is unclear how many of them were killed in crossfire, some of those killed, including the administrator of the farm, were summarily executed by the insurgents.222

On April 29 the ONLF released seven Chinese oil workers and two Ethiopian workers it had abducted from the Obole oil field, although Human Rights Watch has received reliable reports that a third Ethiopian worker kidnapped by the ONLF, an ethnic Somali, was not released by the ONLF and is feared dead.223

The ONLF later tried to justify the attack by claiming that senior government officials were financially involved in the Obole oil exploration, and that civilians had been forced off their land by the exploration project.224 As a matter of international law, such justifications are irrelevant—the installation was not a valid military target. On August 7, 2007, the ONLF issued a statement warning all oil companies to stop operating in the Ogaden or risk attack from the ONLF.225

On May 28, 2007, two simultaneous grenade attacks by unknown assailants took place during annual celebrations to mark the downfall of Mengistu’s Derg government (ginbot haya in Amharic, literally 20th of the month ginbot), considered a pro-government event by many in Somali Region. In Dhagahbur town, the heartland of the Ogaadeeni clan, three grenades were thrown into the crowd, one exploded killing four people instantly and wounding more than 60 others. Two more people, a 17-year-old student and a woman, died from their injuries on the way to the hospital.226

At around the same time as the Dhagahbur grenade attack, unknown assailants threw three grenades into a similar celebration at the soccer stadium in Jijiga, which was being attended by the regional president, Abdullahi Hassan “Lugbuur.”  At least 11 people were killed in the attack, including a local journalist, and the regional president was wounded. Some of those killed and injured may have been shot by Ethiopian soldiers responding to the attack or were crushed by the panicking crowd.227

The ONLF’s exiled spokesperson in London denied responsibility for the May 28, 2007 grenade attacks. Some observers have noted that the ONLF has not been known to bomb crowded sites, a tactic in the past associated with such groups as al-Itihaad, which claimed responsibility for a series of deadly bombings and grenade attacks, including in Addis Ababa, in 1995 and 1996. Others suggested that the targeting of the regional president may have been linked to divisions within the regional government. No publicly-available government investigation to date has pinpointed responsibility for these attacks.

The ONLF has also summarily executed suspected government collaborators or individuals viewed as supporting the government, according to eyewitness accounts. In February 2007, ONLF forces allegedly executed 25-year-old Hodan Gahnug of Maracato village, south of Kabridahar town in Korahe zone. According to a credible source, the ONLF “felt she was propagating against them within the community….They took her out of Maracato and shot her dead.” Human Rights Watch was told that Gahnug’s brother and two other young men had been killed by the ONLF and she “was against the ONLF because she was angered by the killing of her brother.”228

In another case documented by Human Rights Watch, ONLF fighters detained four young men from Dayr village in August 2007, accusing them of collaborating with the Ethiopian army. The bodies of the four men were later found executed outside the village. The four victims included Yusri Dakharre and Weli Aden. The willful killing of anyone in custody is a violation of the laws of armed conflict. These cases also illustrate the degree of pressure rural communities come under to cooperate with the ONLF.

Attacks on Non-Ogaadeeni Clans and Property

The ONLF has engaged in clan-based armed clashes, sometimes supporting fellow Ogaadeeni civilians from related sub-clans in disputes over land or other resources. Some of these clashes have resulted in large numbers of deaths and injuries, particularly in the conflict between certain Ogaadeeni subclans and the Shekash/Sheikahl clan, and between Ogaadeeni and Isaaq.

Tensions between certain Ogaadeeni sub-clans and Isaaq clan members are longstanding. Human Rights Watch received reports that ONLF forces have regularly targeted traders belonging to the rival Isaaq clan. The ONLF views some Isaaq, including the authorities in Somaliland, as collaborating with the Ethiopian army and transporting food aid as contractors of the Ethiopian government and international relief agencies. These trucks are often owned by Isaaq businessmen based in Dire Dawa and Hargeysa.

Illustrating this tension, in 2004 the ONLF and Ogaadeeni civilians burned and destroyed a significant number of commercial trucks belonging to Isaaq businessmen in a dispute, apparently after the authorities in Somaliland detained some Ogaadeeni youths. “We tried everything to get the boys released. Finally we took the decision to burn their trade vehicles,” a 45-year-old man told Human Rights Watch. “We put wood on them and set on fire. It happened in Kabridahar, Wardheer, Dhagahbur and Fiiq. The message to target Isaaq trucks was well spread throughout Ogaden.”229

216 Human Rights Watch telephone interviews, November 2007.

217 Human Rights Watch interview with refugee (name withheld), Dadaab refugee camps (Kenya), October 5, 2007.

218 The ONLF had repeatedly called upon oil companies to cease activities in the region. See “O.N.L.F. Statement on Malaysian Firm PETRONAS’ Oil Exploration in Ogaden,” ONLF statement, July 24, 2005, (accessed March 24, 2008).

219 Human Rights Watch telephone interviews (names and locations withheld), November 2007.

220 Confidential communication to Human Rights Watch and telephone interviews (names and locations withheld), November 2007.

221 Human Rights Watch interview (name and location withheld), November 6, 2007.

222 Ibid.

223 Human Rights Watch telephone interviews, November 2007.

224 ONLF, “ONLF Response to Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Press Release,” June 20, 20 07.

225 “Ethiopian rebels warn against oil exploration activities in the Ogaden,” ONLF, August 7, 2007, (accessed May 5, 2008).

226 Human Rights Watch telephone interviews, July 2007.

227 Andrew Heavens and Tsegaye Tadesse, “Blast wounds Ethiopia Regional Leader, 11 Dead,” Reuters, May 28, 2007.

228 Human Rights Watch telephone interview (name and location withheld), November 22, 2007.

229 Human Rights Watch interview with 45-year-old pastoralist, Nairobi, September 17, 2007.