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Ethiopia Focuses on Oil Deals Despite Resistance From Rebels

The minister for Mining and Energy in Ethiopia says the recent oil deals signed with international companies for exploration and mining across the country will bring much needed development to the poor East African country, despite opposition. Arjun Kohli has more on the story from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi.

Petroleum exploration is currently under way in the regions of Gambella, Ogaden, Southern Rift and Abay Basin. The Minister for Energy and Mining, Alemayeu Tegenu signed a multi-million dollar deal with Malaysian company Petronas last month to develop natural gas in the Ogaden region.

Petronas is one of 66 companies licensed to mine for minerals in Ethiopia.

But, these regions have their problems.

The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) recently called for United Nations to investigate the region for possible human rights violations by the Ethiopian army, a charge the government has denied.

Ethiopia's Ogaden region is a vast, oil-rich, but impoverished area, which shares a long and porous border with Somalia. Most of the people in the Ogaden are ethnic Somalis, who support the rebels' 20-year-long fight for independence from Ethiopia. In an effort to stake their claim to the region, the ONLF in April killed more than 70 people, mostly Ethiopian guards, during a raid on a Chinese-run oil field in the Ogaden.

The Ethiopian government issued a statement that it has killed or captured over 700 rebels in the past two months. In an interview with VOA, Energy Minister Alemayeu Tegenu was confident that the ONLF would not stand in the way of development in the Ogaden region.

"This front is anti-development. They are resisting the development, they are anti-development. That is not a challenge for us," he said. "We developed the Ogaden region and we will make the community benefit from this development. What impact it does have, [this] exploration in Ethiopia? Because after exploration when we get result we go to the development, as everybody knows when you get oil it will give revenue. This revenue will assist in the country's development."

Ethiopia has a low per capita income and an illiteracy rate of about 60 percent. It remains one of Africa's poorest countries and its economy is based on agriculture, which accounts for half of its GDP.

Tegenu says that while Ethiopia does not want to become dependent on oil, oil revenues could have a significant impact on the Ethiopian economy.