By Andrew Heavens and Tsegaye Tadesse
25 April, 2007
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Ethiopian troops searched on Wednesday for seven Chinese and Ethiopian workers kidnapped in a rebel attack on an oilfield that killed 74 people in a remote and barren southeastern region.
The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), ethnic Somalis fighting for independence since 1984, claimed responsibility for the pre-dawn raid on the Chinese-run field that was one of the worst attacks to date on Beijing's growing interests in Africa.
The rebels have repeatedly warned energy companies they will not allow oil and gas exploration in the area as long as the Ogaden people are "denied their rights to self-determination".
"The Ethiopian government will hunt down the perpetrators and bring them to justice," Bereket Simon, special adviser to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, told Reuters.
"Bringing back these people will be our number one priority. We have assigned an appropriate force for the task."
Ethiopian officials said gunmen killed 65 Ethiopians and nine Chinese as they slept at the oilfield about 100 km (60 miles) south of the regional capital Jijiga.
But in a statement published on its Web site, the ONLF blamed the deaths of a "handful" of Chinese on blasts caused by munitions during a battle they said killed or wounded some 400 Ethiopian soldiers.
It denied abducting Chinese oil workers. "They have been removed from the battlefield for their own safety and are being treated well," the ONLF said in its overnight statement.
China's Xinhua news agency said the Chinese staff worked for Zhongyuan Petroleum Exploration Bureau, part of the much larger China Petroleum and Chemical Corp. (Sinopec).
Officials from both companies declined comment.
ANGER IN BEIJING
Beijing "strongly condemned" the attack, which exposed the risks of its drive to use Africa's under-developed energy resources to feed a rapidly growing economy.
African governments have generally welcomed the Chinese push, which comes free of the political conditions often imposed by Western nations. But there is concern in some quarters Beijing may be gaining too much control, treating local labor forces badly and flooding Africa with cheap goods.
Some Chinese oil workers were kidnapped in Nigeria, while Zambians have rioted over pay at a Chinese-owned mine. But the Ethiopian case is believed to be the most serious of its kind.
The bodies of the dead Chinese were due to be flown back to the capital Addis Ababa later on Wednesday.
The latest separatist attack in Ethiopia comes a month after rebels seeking autonomy for its northern Afar region kidnapped five Europeans and eight Ethiopians.
Analysts say the unrest in the country's remote corners highlights simmering opposition to centralized rule in Addis Ababa from its many ethnic groups.
Dissent has grown since disputed elections in 2005, with Ethiopia accusing arch-foe Eritrea of fomenting rebellion in the country of 75 million. Asmara denies the charges.
The United Nations has said ONLF and Oromo Liberation Front guerrillas were fighting alongside Islamists in a war with the Ethiopian-backed interim government in neighboring Somalia.
Somalia's deepening crisis had raised tensions in Ogaden.
"There are a lot of sympathizers with the Somali cause," one aid official told Reuters on condition of anonymity. "Perhaps the ONLF are taking advantage of all the attention on Mogadishu to get some publicity for themselves."
The ONLF was formed after Ethiopia crushed Somali troops trying to regain ethnic Somali areas in a 1977-78 war.
The ONLF said Ogaden remained a "battle zone" between its forces and those of the government.
"It is not a safe environment for any oil exploration to occur," it said on its Web site www.onlf.org.
(Additional reporting by Chris Buckley in Beijing)