Ethiopian rebels kill 70 at Chinese-run oil field
International Herald Tribune
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Ethiopian rebels kill 70 at Chinese-run oil field
NAIROBI, Kenya: Separatist rebels stormed a Chinese-run oil field in eastern Ethiopia on Tuesday, killing more than 70 people, including nine Chinese workers, in one of Ethiopia's worst rebel attacks in years.
Dozens of gunmen crept up to the oil field at dawn and unleashed a barrage of machine-gun fire at Ethiopian soldiers posted outside, Chinese and Ethiopian officials said. After a fierce hourlong battle, the rebels rushed away, taking at least six Chinese hostages with them.
Ethiopia, a close ally of the United States, has been racked by separatist movements for years. But the severity of this attack seemed to unnerve Ethiopian officials, who usually minimize any threats to their control.
"It was a massacre," Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said in a televised address on Tuesday night. "It was cold-blooded murder."
The Ogaden National Liberation Front, a militant group fighting for control of eastern Ethiopia, immediately claimed responsibility, circulating an e-mail message that said, "We will not allow the mineral resources of our people to be exploited by this regime or any firm that it enters into an illegal contract."
The front said that its primary target was the Ethiopian soldiers guarding the oil field and that the Chinese workers had been killed by explosions during the fighting.
Given China's drive to extract oil wherever it can be found, Chinese workers are often dispatched to conflict zones, and several have been kidnapped in the volatile Niger Delta region of Nigeria. In other parts of Africa, like Zambia, China's investments have brought resentment from local politicians and residents.
As for the workers kidnapped on Tuesday, the rebel group's statement said: "ONLF forces rounding up Ethiopian military prisoners following the battle came across six Chinese workers. They have been removed from the battlefield for their own safety and are being treated well." But the group did not say anything about releasing them.
Ethiopian officials, who confirmed that 65 government soldiers had been killed, said they were rushing reinforcements to the area and vowed to crush the rebels. But the country's military is stretched thin.
Thousands of Ethiopian troops are bogged down in Somalia, where they face increasingly intense resistance. On Tuesday, a suicide bomber attacking Ethiopian troops killed seven civilians in Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, the second time in a week that suicide attacks were used. More than 1,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the past month in heavy shelling between Somali insurgents and Ethiopian-led troops.
Ethiopia, with covert American help, intervened in Somalia in December to prop up Somalia's weak transitional government and defeat Islamist forces that had controlled much of Somalia and were widely suspected of sheltering anti-Ethiopian rebel groups like the Ogaden National Liberation Front.
Ethiopian troops in Somalia recently rounded up dozens of suspected rebels, and human rights observers say the Ethiopians have also imprisoned — and tortured — innocent civilians.
Such tactics, analysts say, may now be coming back to haunt the Ethiopians.
"This is the rebels' response," said Ted Dagne, a specialist in African affairs for the Congressional Research Service. "They are fighting a classic guerrilla war against the government, and those widespread detentions became another one of their grievances."
The Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia is a hot and inhospitable place, home to Somali-speaking nomads who have always identified more with neighboring Somalia than with Ethiopia. Part of the reason is religion. Ethiopia's leaders have traditionally been Christian, while Ogadenis are almost all Muslims.
The Ogaden National Liberation Front, formed 23 years ago, was briefly aligned with the current Ethiopian government but broke away in the mid-1990s after it was clear that the Ogaden region would not be given autonomy.
Western military analysts say the front has a few thousand lightly armed fighters, who get their weapons and training from Eritrea, Ethiopia's neighbor and bitter enemy. In the galaxy of rebel groups roaming nearly every corner of Ethiopia, these fighters have been considered a midlevel threat to the government.
Oil, though, seems to be its new focus. In August, the Web-savvy front issued an electronic threat against a Malaysian oil company that was contemplating drilling in Ethiopia.
The oil field that the rebels raided Tuesday was run by a division of China's government-owned energy giant, the China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation. According to Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, the Ethiopian rebels briefly seized control of the oil field before kidnapping seven Chinese workers, who were among the 37 Chinese and 120 Ethiopians employed there.
In Jijiga, a nearby city, residents said Ethiopian soldiers were mustering for a huge counterstrike.
"There are federal soldiers and city police everywhere on the streets," said a businessman named Biruk. "People are scared."
Last month, the Ogaden National Liberation Front accused the Ethiopian government of burning an Ogadeni village to the ground. It said that government soldiers had gone after civilians, not fighters, and that "the ONLF will respond swiftly and decisively to this barbaric act."