Ethiopian troops are searching for seven Chinese workers kidnapped in a rebel attack on an oilfield that killed 74 people in the remote and barren Ogaden region in the southeast of the country.
The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), ethnic Somalis fighting for independence since 1984, claimed responsibility for the pre-dawn raid.
"The Ethiopian government will hunt down the perpetrators and bring them to justice," Bereket Simon, special adviser to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, said yesterday.
"Bringing back these people will be our number one priority. We have assigned an appropriate force for the task."
Ethiopian officials said gunmen killed nine Chinese workers and 65 Ethiopians as they slept at the oilfield about 100 km south of the regional capital Jijiga.
Ethiopia's embassy in London yesterday accused the ONLF of links to al-Qaida. "The terrorist network ... once again attacked and killed civilians," it said.
China condemned the raid, the deadliest in a string of assaults on Chinese in Africa, calling it "an atrocious armed attack".
Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said China had asked Ethiopia to work for the safe return of the kidnapped workers. He said his ministry, the Ministry of Commerce and the Chinese embassy in Addis Ababa had formed an emergency team to deal with the incident.
Sinopec, the State-owned parent company of Zhongyuan Petroleum Exploration Bureau, which operates the oilfield targeted in Ethiopia, said it was undeterred by the attack.
"There is no way we would stay away from Africa due to the fear of risk," a Sinopec spokesman said on condition of anonymity.
"This is not a game for us. We will try to improve security in the future, but there is no way we will withdraw from our projects there," he said.
"This incident will not have a major influence on China's investment in Africa," Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China, said.
"It's possible that China may use its influence and business leverage to make the African governments offer more effective protection of China's economic interests," he added.
Zhongyuan began its operation in Ethiopia in May 2004. The oil project in the volatile regional state started operation just a few days ago.
The bodies of the Chinese, along with Chinese workers were flown back to the capital Addis Ababa yesterday. They were expected to be flown back to Beijing by a chartered plane on Saturday, according to reports.
Sun Qing, a Chinese embassy spokeswoman, said negotiations were under way to release the hostages.
In a statement published on its website, the ONLF said the Chinese oil workers "have been removed from the battlefield for their own safety and are being treated well".
The Chinese embassy has formed an emergency team maintaining close contact with the Ethiopian government and military, Chinese Charge d'Affaires Zhang Yuebang said.
Tuesday's attack by more than 200 fighters lasted about an hour, and followed a warning the rebel group made last year against any investment in eastern Ethiopia's Ogaden area.
Xinhua reported that the attackers fought 100 Ethiopian soldiers protecting the facility.
A total of 35 Chinese workers were at the oilfield during the time of attack.
Ethiopia yesterday blamed longtime enemy Eritrea for the attack.
A statement posted on Ethiopia's Foreign Ministry website called on the United Nations to take action against Eritrea.
Tuesday's attackers "were wearing Eritrean military uniforms", Abdullahi Hassan, president of the region in Ethiopia where the attack occurred, said.
"We are sure. They were speaking the Eritrean language."
Hassan said the area of the attack is now under control.
Eritrean Information Minister Ali Abdu denied the allegation.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi also condemned the slayings.
"It is an outrage," he said at a news conference yesterday.
(China Daily April 26, 2007)