Ethiopia and rebels in the restive Ogaden region have confirmed a deadly clash this week in an area where a Chinese firm is exploring for oil. Each of the two side's respective versions of the event differ sharply.
Details provided by both the Ethiopian government and rebels of the Ogaden National Liberation Force [ONLF] are sketchy.
But they agree that clashes took place this week in Ethiopia’s Somali region, between the main city, Jijiga, and the town of Degehabur, 150 kilometers to the south. The area is about 500 kilometers east of Addis Ababa, where the Chinese firm PetroTrans is exploring for oil.
An ONLF communiqué received by email Friday said 25 soldiers from an elite Ethiopian army brigade had been killed, along with a few rebel fighters in a battle last Tuesday. The statement said the army units had been escorting a PetroTrans exploration team, and had been “dislodging farmers from their lands” on the pretext that their farms were located on a seismic fault line.
The ONLF email alleged that the Chinese workers embedded with the army were wearing army camouflage uniforms, jeopardizing their rights as unarmed civilians stipulated in the Geneva Convention.
Ethiopian government spokesman Shimeles Kemal ridiculed the ONLF claim. In a telephone interview, he said rebels had attacked what he called “civilian targets,” but had been rebuffed by local militia, suffering heavy casualties.
Contradictory version of events
"It’s the usual lie, the usual fabrication by the ONLF propaganda machinery. There was no attack against Ethiopian soldiers that allegedly accompanied the Chinese oil exploration company," said Shimeles. "What happened was, a bunch of ONLF rebel forces had tried to launch an attack against civilian targets. The local militia had ambushed and preempted their attack, and in the ensuing conflict, 11 members of ONLF were killed there and then."
Shimeles confirmed that oil exploration is in progress in the region, but denied there had been any attacks on oil workers or their facilities.
"There are some oil exploration companies, particularly PetroTrans oil exploration company, which undertakes an exploration of oil in the area, and this company has undertaken its activities, and so far there has been no incident, no attack on it. They are undertaking their operation peacefully.
Conflicted oil region
The ONLF has been fighting for self-determination for the Ogaden since the 1970s, and is listed by Ethiopia as a terrorist organization.
In 2007, the group attacked a Chinese-owned exploration facility, killing 65 Ethiopians and nine Chinese workers. That attack prompted the Addis Ababa government to intensify its anti-insurgency campaign in the region.
The Ogaden has since been largely off limits to foreigners. The International Committee of the Red Cross was expelled from the region by the Ethiopian government in 2008 after being accused of providing aid to the rebels.
Two Swedish journalists were arrested in the Ogaden in July after being injured in a battle between pro-government forces and ONLF rebels. The pair remain in jail, and have a court date next week.