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Ethiopian rebels attack Chinese-run oil field, killing 74

Broadening of conflict in Somalia feared

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- Ethiopian rebels who have fought alongside Islamic militants in neighboring Somalia stormed a Chinese-run oil field at dawn yesterday, killing 74 people and destroying the exploration facility in a restive border region.

It was the first such attack on a foreign company in this Horn of Africa nation, in contrast to Nigeria on the western side of the continent, where rebel groups frequently attack international oil concerns.

Chinese officials said nine Chinese oil workers and 65 Ethiopians died and seven Chinese were taken away by the rebels. It wasn't known if the rebels suffered any casualties.

The assault by more than 200 gunmen lasted nearly an hour, and followed a warning last year from the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front against any investment in eastern Ethiopia's Ogaden area that could benefit the US-allied government.

Formed by Ethiopia's ethnic Somali minority, the Muslim group has been fighting for secession of the Britain-sized region with 4 million inhabitants since the early 1990s, but it had mounted only occasional hit-and-run attacks on government troops in recent years.

The large scale of the attack at the small town of Abole, close to the Somali border, raised the prospect of a broadening of the fighting in Somalia, where the Ethiopian army is supporting the UN-backed interim Somali government in a war with Islamic insurgents.

"This was a cold-blooded killing," Bereket Simon, a special adviser to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, said in an interview.

J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the Ogaden rebels are a "convenient vehicle for those who want to destabilize Ethiopia." He said both Somalia's Islamic militants and the government of Eritrea could be backers.

Princeton Lyman, an Africa expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, urged caution in assigning blame. He said it was possible the Eritreans could encourage such attacks, but he added that the Ogaden rebels might simply have been emboldened by the fighting in Somalia.

The rebels have fought on behalf of the Somalia insurgents, while Ethiopia and Eritrea are bitter foes.

Eritreans won their independence from Ethiopia in 1991 after a bloody three-decade rebellion, and the two nations fought a 2 1/2-year war over their disputed border that ended in 2000. Ethiopia has accused Eritrea of waging terror attacks, a charge Eritrea denies.

Eritrea also is thought to be providing support to insurgents fighting Somalia's acting government, which was supported by Ethiopian troops in defeating a hard-line Muslim militia in December.

The Ethiopian government, which is dominated by Christians and has the strongest army in the region, has allied with the United States in the campaign against extremist groups in the Horn of Africa. It fears rising Islamic militancy in the region could worsen unrest in Ogaden, which Ethiopia won from Somalia in a 1977 border war.

Ethiopia's prime minister, Meles, expressed confidence to journalists that the attack would not have a lasting effect on investment here.

Ethiopia is not an oil-producing country. But companies such as China's Zhongyuan Petroleum Exploration Bureau, whose facility was attacked, and Malaysia's state-owned oil giant Petronas have signed exploration deals.

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, sometimes venturing into politically unstable areas.

Xu Shuang, general manager of Zhongyuan Petroleum Exploration Bureau's Ethiopia operation, declined to give details of the attack, except to say that the attackers killed nine Chinese oil workers along with 65 Ethiopians and kidnapped seven Chinese workers.

A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Liu Jianchao, condemned the attack, China's official Xinhua News Agency said.

Xinhua said the attackers fought 100 Ethiopian soldiers protecting the facility in a 50-minute gun battle. It said the company had 157 Chinese and Ethiopian workers at the facility.

Zhongyuan Petroleum Exploration Bureau, which has operations in at least nine nations, is a division of the state-owned China Petroleum and Chemical Corp. and came to Ethiopia in May 2004, according to its Web site. It began work in Ogaden last year.

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