Apr 24, 2007
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) -- Rebels stormed a Chinese-run oil field at dawn in eastern Ethiopia, killing 74 people, destroying the exploration facility and kidnapping seven Chinese workers in the first such attack against an international company in the Horn of Africa nation.
Tuesday's attack by more than 200 rebel fighters lasted about an hour, and followed a warning the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front made last year against any investment in eastern Ethiopia's Ogaden area.
In recent years, the front has only made occasional hit-and-run attacks against government troops, making Tuesday's attack its most significant one. Formed from Ethiopia's minority Somalis, the Muslim group has combatants fighting alongside insurgents in Somalia and has fought for the secession of the Ogaden region, an area the size of Britain with 4 million people, since the early 1990s.
The volatile Somali Regional State, as the Ogaden is known, "is not a safe environment for any oil exploration to occur. We urge all international oil companies to refrain from entering into agreements with the Ethiopian government," the group said in a statement sent to The Associated Press.
Ethiopia is not an oil-producing country. But companies such as China's Zhongyuan Petroleum Exploration Bureau, whose facility was attacked Tuesday, and Malaysia's state-owned oil giant Petronas have signed exploration deals.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told journalists the attacks would not have a lasting impact on investment in Ethiopia.
J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., said the rebels are a "convenient vehicle for those who want to destabilize Ethiopia," saying both Islamic militants in Somalia and the Eritreans could be backers.
Xu Shuang, the general manager of Zhongyuan Petroleum Exploration Bureau's Ethiopia operation said nine Chinese oil workers were killed, seven Chinese workers were kidnapped and 65 locals were also killed in the fighting.
Xu declined to give further details.
"This was a cold-blooded killing," Bereket Simon, a special adviser to Meles, told the AP.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao condemned the attack, saying it was carried out by "more than 200 unidentified gunmen," reported the China's official Xinhua News Agency.
The agency earlier reported that the attackers fought 100 Ethiopian soldiers protecting the facility in a 50-minute gunbattle. It said the company had 157 Chinese and Ethiopian workers at the facility.
Zhongyuan Petroleum Exploration Bureau is a division of the giant state-owned China Petroleum and Chemical Corp. that began its operations in Ethiopia in May 2004, according to its Web site. It began work in the volatile Somali Regional State last year.
Zhongyuan Petroleum Exploration Bureau has operations in at least eight other countries.
The Ogaden National Liberation Front described Tuesday's attack as "military operations against units of the Ethiopian armed forces guarding an oil-exploration site," in the east of the country.
It did not give any details of casualties, but said they had "wiped out" three Ethiopian military units.
The attack took place early Tuesday in Abole, a small town 120 kilometers (75 miles) from the state's capital, Jijiga, close to the Somali border. Senior Ethiopian official Bereket said several Ethiopian troops were wounded in the gunbattle.
"The army is pursuing them. We will track them down dead or alive. We will make sure these people will be hunted and be brought to justice," he said.
Bereket said the Ogaden National Liberation Front was also linked to the Eritrean government, which Ethiopia has repeatedly accused of waging terror attacks. Eritrea denies the claims.
Both countries fought a bloody border war that ended in 2000 and are accused of backing rival sides in the conflict in Somalia, where Ethiopian troops helped the government topple a militant Islamic group late last year and continue to battle remnants of the Islamic group and Somali warlords.
Sally Healy, a Horn of Africa expert at Chatham House, said the front had detained people, often aid workers in the past. She did not recall any incident in which those detained had been killed.
Healy said she had heard a lot of "bold assertions about the Eritreans" recently, and while the country may stand to benefit from an attack that hurts Ethiopia's interests, she urged caution in assigning blame.
China has increased its presence in Africa in recent years in a hunt for oil and other natural resources to feed its rapidly growing economy.
Its forays into areas considered politically unstable, however, has exposed Chinese workers to attacks.