ADDIS ABABA — Ethiopia signed a peace deal Tuesday with a breakaway faction of the Ogaden National Liberation Front rebels who have waged a 25-year insurgency to gain autonomy of their oil-rich region.
Federal Affairs Minister Shiferaw Teklemariam and the chairman of the ONLF faction's supreme souncil, Salahdin Abdurahman Maow, inked the deal, but which was dismissed by the group's main body which has vowed to continue fighting.
"The conviction of both sides has brought about a historical reconciliation in the region," Shiferaw said.
On his part, Salahdin said: "We have come to understand the destructive nature of war and war is not the only solution to our problems."
State officials said the government would provide amnesty to the group's members and grant the region the right to self determination up to independence.
However, the spokesman of the ONLF group still waging war dismissed the breakaway rebels as "irrelevant."
"It's irrelevant. They don't represent anybody and it will not change anything in the Ogaden. The fighting will continue," Abderahmane Mahadi told AFP by phone from Britain.
"They are just individuals who want to get constituencies and have power, of course money is also very important."
Tuesday's signing followed the government's annuncement in June that the breakaway group had agreed to lay down arms.
The government then said the group's members would benefit from immunity from prosecution and their movement would be turned into a political party.
The ONLF has been fighting for the independence of the remote southeastern Ogaden since its formation in 1984, claiming they have been marginalised by the the Addis Ababa regime.
In a major raid in 2007, the ONLF rebels attacked a Chinese-run oil exploration operation in the region, killing 77 people including nine Chinese nationals and prompting a government crackdown.
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.
Both the government and the insurgents routinely trade accusations or trumpet major military victories, but information on the region is very hard to verify because independent media access to the remote region is banned.
The ONLF has said in the past that it was ready to talk with the government through the mediation of a third country, a request so far rejected by Addis Abeba.
Salahdin called for the exclusion of his erstwhile comrades-in-arms.
"Ethiopia's constitution is functioning in all regions but ours. We want to close that gap between our region and the rest of Ethiopia," Salahdin said at the ceremony also attended by foreign diplomats.
"To those who haven't joined the peace process, we should bring them to justice and exclude them from our society."
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