Ethiopia blames attack on Chinese oil exploration field on rival Eritrea

Thursday, April 26, 2007

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- Ethiopia on Wednesday blamed its rival Eritrea for an attack on a Chinese-owned oil exploration field that killed 74 people, raising tensions between the neighbors who have yet to resolve a border issue following the end of a two-year war in 2000.

The rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front, which has been linked to Eritrea in the past, claimed responsibility for Tuesday's attack, which killed 65 Ethiopians and nine Chinese. At least six Chinese workers also were kidnapped, said Xu Shuang, general manager of Zhongyuan Petroleum Exploration Bureau's Ethiopia operation.

The rebels, ethnic Somalis who have been fighting for independence since 1984, have warned against any investment in eastern Ethiopia that could benefit the U.S.-allied government.

"Hand-in-glove with the Eritrean government, which hates to see Ethiopia's development, the terrorist forces in the region have acted out this horrendous act of terror," Ethiopia's Foreign Ministry said on its Web site Wednesday. It called on the U.N. to take action against Eritrea.

Abdullahi Hassan, president of the region in Ethiopia where the attack occurred, told The Associated Press the attackers were wearing Eritrean military uniforms.

Eritrea issued an angry denial, with Information Minister Ali Abdu calling it was "a habitual nonsense statement" from Ethiopia.

Relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea have been strained since Eritrea gained independence from the Addis Ababa government in 1993 following a 30-year guerrilla war. A truce ended the two-year border war in 2000, but the boundary between the country has yet to be fixed.

The dawn raid was the deadliest in a string of attacks against Chinese interests in Africa in recent months.

China's oil firms began investing in Africa since the late 1990s, after double-digit economic growth outstripped supplies from domestic fields. The communist nation's trade with Africa has grown fourfold this decade to reach $40 billion in 2005.

But Beijing's interests in Africa -- the world's poorest and most corrupt continent -- have come at a price. Sixteen Chinese were kidnapped in three separate incidents this year in Nigeria, where gunmen are seeking greater control of oil revenues. And in January, gunmen in Kenya killed one Chinese engineer and injured another working on a highway project.

There is simmering anger among some Africans over China's presence on the continent, which has led to cheap Chinese goods flooding the market and the perception that Beijing's attention is a neocolonial resource grab.

The bodies of the nine Chinese oil workers were flown to Ethiopia's capital Wednesday from Abole, a small town 300 miles to the east near the Somalia border.

Sun Qing, a Chinese embassy spokeswoman in Addis Ababa, said the bodies would be repatriated to China. She also said negotiations were under way to win the release of the hostages and that all Chinese staff were being evacuated.

A spokesman for Beijing's Sinopec oil company, the state-owned parent company of the Zhongyuan Petroleum Exploration Bureau, said the attack would not cause China to pull out of region. The company began working in Ethiopia's volatile Somali Regional State last year.

"There is no way we would stay away from Africa due to the fear of risk," the spokesman said on condition of anonymity in line with company policy. "This is not a game for us. We will try to improve security in future, but there is no way we will withdraw from our projects there."

But Africa analyst Gus Selassie said Tuesday's attack could affect foreign investment in Ethiopia, a desperately poor country. Ethiopia does not produce oil, but Zhongyuan and Malaysia's state-owned oil giant Petronas have signed exploration deals.

"The oil reserves there are not even proven so many investors will be asking themselves is it worth the risk," said Selassie, of the British-based Global Insight. "Up until now this was a relatively peaceful place so this incident is bound to alarm investors."

The location of the Zhongyuan oil field is particularly fraught. The Somali Regional State, also known as the Ogaden, "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 ONLF said in its claim of responsibility sent to The Associated Press.

The region, which abuts Somalia in eastern Ethiopia, is the size of Britain and home to 4 million people.

Ethiopia blaming Eritrea for the attack is also sure to raise the tensions in the region. Some members of the ONLF have fought alongside Islamic militants battling Ethiopian-backed Somali troops in neighboring Somalia, but the organization denies any official links.

Analysts are concerned Ethiopia and Eritrea are fighting a proxy war in Somalia which could engulf the entire Horn of Africa region.

Associated Press Writer Alexa Olesen in Beijing contributed to this report.

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