Scores Are Killed In Ethiopia Attack

By Stephanie McCrummen and Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

NAIROBI, April 24 -- Gunmen killed scores of people at a Chinese-run oil field in Ethiopia early Tuesday in an attack claimed by a separatist group operating near the border with Somalia.

Ethiopian officials said 74 workers, including nine Chinese, were killed in Abole, a small town in the country's ethnically Somali region known as the Ogaden. In a communique posted on its Web site, however, the separatist Ogaden National Liberation Front said the casualties were scores of Ethiopian troops, along with "a handful" of Chinese oil workers.

The ONLF said that civilians in the region had been forcibly removed from their homes recently and that grazing rights had been cut off following an oil exploration deal between the Ethiopian government and the Chinese. The attack, near the town of Jijiga, was aimed at Ethiopian soldiers guarding the oil field perimeter, the group said.

Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin, in Washington meeting with national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, characterized the attackers as "international terrorists together with local terrorists from Somalia" and quickly cast suspicion on Ethiopia's longtime foe, Eritrea, for supporting them.

"We will get to the bottom of it," Seyoum said. "There were no troops in the camps, just workers. The attackers just went into the camps and committed a massacre."

The incident is the latest subplot in the broader story of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's various attempts to control -- at times brutally -- a variety of separatist groups inside Ethiopia and in neighboring Somalia.

Late last year, Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia to oust a growing Islamic movement and install a more friendly, U.S.-backed transitional government, a military intervention that has gone badly since, with Ethiopia now battling a clan-based insurgency on the streets of Mogadishu.

At least part of the invasion was intended to deny a potential base of operations for separatist groups such as the ONLF.

Following the invasion, Ethiopian troops arrested dozens of ethnic Ogadenis in Somalia and Kenya who are now among scores of detainees in secret prisons inside Ethiopia. And in recent weeks, Ethiopian security forces have cracked down in the Ogaden region, killing suspected ONLF leaders and arresting scores of suspected sympathizers, according to U.S. officials familiar with the situation.

Ethiopia, now a close U.S. ally, has a troubling human rights record including torture.

"This large-scale attack by the ONLF appears to be in response to the ongoing crackdown against the Ogadenis by Ethiopian security and Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia," said Ted Dagne, a specialist in African affairs with the Congressional Research Service in Washington. "In carrying out this attack, the ONLF is also sending a message that it is active and capable."

The Ogaden region has been the source of two wars, one in the 1960s and another in the 1970s, between Somalia and Ethiopia. Following those struggles, the ONLF began advocating for the right of self-determination, a notion that has been part of Ogadeni stories and poetry since the region was conquered by Ethiopia in the late 19th century.

Meles's government "has made clear its intention to continue to pursue a military solution in Ogaden," the ONLF said in its statement Tuesday. "As such, we wish to reaffirm to the international community that the Ogaden region continues to be a battle zone."

The Chinese Foreign Ministry condemned the attack, saying in a statement that it "mourns for the Chinese and Ethiopian victims and expresses deep sympathies to those injured in the attack."

Cody reported from Beijing. Correspondent Nora Boustany in Washington contributed to this report.

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