From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Fri Dec 11 2009 - 11:39:11 EST
Ethiopia rebels spread jitters in oil region
Fri Dec 11, 2009 2:51pm GMT
By Barry Malone
JIJIGA, Ethiopia (Reuters) - A rebel group's claims to have captured seven
towns and killed 1,000 soldiers in fierce fighting in Ethiopia's
oil-producing Ogaden region are almost certainly exaggerated, foreign aid
workers in the region say.
Ethiopia's Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) staged bold raids on
government positions last month and aid workers say several hundred people
were probably killed on both sides.
But while the guerrillas are capable of causing instability in the vast
Somali region, which includes the Ogaden and accounts for one-fifth of the
country's landmass, experts say they cannot hold territory.
"They attacked more than twenty places," one aid worker, who asked not to be
identified, told Reuters in Jijiga, the regional capital. "But they only
managed to take one town, not seven."
A culture of secrecy and suspicion has surrounded the volatile Ogaden region
ever since the ONLF overran a Chinese oilfield in 2007 and killed 74 people.
Now that foreign firms including Malaysia's Petronas and Vancouver-based
Africa Oil Corporation are back at work in the region, some are wondering
whether the investment will be worth the risk.
Ethiopia is offering up to 14 more exploration permits over the next three
years, and the government is keen to make sure the guerrillas do not attack
The rebels routinely warn oil companies to stay away.
"The people of Ogaden want to have their mineral wealth developed, but not
if it will be used to subjugate them further, which will be the case if the
regime attains this wealth," Abdirahman Mahdi, the ONLF's foreign secretary,
Most analysts say the group has no chance of overthrowing the government.
"In the Somali region they can carry out hit-and-run assaults on government
sites as well as on outposts of foreign entities, like Chinese energy
explorers," Mark Schroeder, an Africa analyst with Stratfor, told Reuters.
"But they cannot hold large stretches of territory."
"STRUGGLE FOR SELF-DETERMINATION"
Journalists are not allowed to travel in Ogaden without an escort and have
been arrested and expelled from the country for doing so. Reuters went to
the Ogaden with the U.S. ambassador to the U.N.'s food agencies, Ertharin
In heavily-protected Jijiga, soldiers patrol a nervous population. Foreign
aid staff return to protected compounds before a 9 p.m. curfew. Cafes and
bars have been attacked with grenades.
The region borders chaotic Somalia. The part known as the Ogaden after the
region's largest clan is the centre of conflict between the ONLF and
government soldiers and militias.
Mahdi, who rarely speaks to the media, told Reuters the rebels wanted a
referendum on independence for the region's Muslim, ethnic Somali people.
And he dismissed claims the ONLF was helping Somalia's Islamist al Shabaab
rebels, who are waging a violent war against that country's U.N.-backed
"The ONLF, as a matter of policy and principle, does not and will not
collaborate with extremist organisations," he said. "This is a struggle for
Analysts say that, along with its potential mineral wealth, the desert
region's location between Somalia and Addis Ababa makes the Ethiopian
government determined to hold on to it after a long history of hostilities
with its neighbour.
The government says the ONLF has no popular support and is funded by rival
Eritrea in an attempt to destabilise Ethiopia.
Bereket Simon, the Ethiopian government's head of information, told Reuters
the rebels had regrouped since 2007, but called November's attacks a "last
Locals said the rebels were believed to be planning more assaults.
The rebels and the government routinely accuse each other of terrorising the
local population, burning villages and murdering and raping civilians.
The ONLF accuses government forces of stopping food aid and commercial
supplies from reaching their strongholds, putting thousands of
drought-affliced civilians at risk of starvation.
Ambassador Cousin's visit was carefully managed by the United Nations and
the Ethiopian government. Her convoy rarely left main roads, and she said
saw no evidence of the ONLF charges.
C Thomson Reuters 2009 All rights reserved
FACTBOX-Who are Ethiopia's ONLF rebels?
Fri Dec 11, 2009 1:35pm GMT
Dec 11 (Reuters) - Ethiopia's Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF)
launched attacks on government positions last month and are warning
international oil companies not to explore for their region's potential
Here are some key facts about the ONLF:
* The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) is the most active of the
country's rebel groups. It was formed in 1984 amid a resurgence of
separatist sentiment in the Ogaden region, which is near Ethiopia's border
* In April 2007 the rebels attacked an oilfield run by Sinopec, Asia's
biggest refiner and China's second largest oil and gas producer. Sinopec
then pulled out of the Ogaden. Most of Ethiopia's oil and gas exploration
activities have centred on the vast desert province. The rebels want firms
to stay away.
* Ethiopia's Somali region, of which the Ogaden is a part, is mainly
populated by Muslim Somali-speakers. The area has its own identity, doing
most of its trade with Somaliland, Somalia and the Middle East, rather than
the rest of Ethiopia.
* The ONLF dominated the Somalia region's government from 1991 until 1994.
But the regional parliament passed a resolution in 1994 to hold a referendum
on independence for the Ogaden and was then dissolved by the government.
* The group says its goal remains a referendum on independence for the
* The rebels have employed a strategy of hit-and-run attacks, often using
grenades and landmines before melting back into the region's largely nomadic
* The Ethiopian government says the ONLF is trained and funded by Horn of
Africa rival Eritrea in an effort to destabilize Ethiopia. Regional analysts
* The Ethiopian government is itself partly made up of former rebel groups.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi came to power in 1991 when rebels led by him and
others overthrew a communist regime. He has said his government will not
commit war crimes in the Ogaden as they know what it is to be rebels.
* The separatist cause has been fuelled by widespread resentment at the
region's low level of development. Until Chinese engineers arrived in 2006,
the entire region had just over 30 km (20 miles) of tarmac road. (Reporting
by Barry Malone, editing by Paul Taylor)
C Thomson Reuters 2009 All rights reserved
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