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Last Updated: Feb 11, 2014 - 5:11:05 AM
Africa
Ethiopia:Oil companies suspend operations

The Somali Regional States' Police Commission, on Wednesday and Thursday, detained four suspects in the attack on oil exploration companies in the Ogaden basin, south east Ethiopia.

Bashir Abdulahi, the regional states' police commissioner, told The Reporter that the police arrested the first two suspects on Wednesday in the regional capital, Jijjiga town, 630km east of Addis Ababa. Bashir said the police arrested another two suspects on Thursday in the same town. The commissioner indicated the individuals were suspected of some kind of involvement in the crime adding the individuals were not residents of Jijiga. "They are from different localities in the region. They are being interrogated," he added.

 Bashir said investigations were underway in different localities. "We believe that we will find some of the culprits in the near future," he said. The commissioner declined to disclose the identities of the suspects. However, he said intensive investigations were underway adding the outcome would be made public at the appropriate time.

Members of the federal and the regional police forces as well as the national defense forces are searching for the culprits. The attack took place on Tuesday morning at about 5:00 AM in Degahabur zone in Abole locality, 12km from Jijiga. Nine Chinese oil workers and 65 locals were killed when more than 200 armed men opened fire at a residential camp in Abole. The attackers fought 100 Ethiopian soldiers guarding the camp in a 50-minute gun battle. Seven Chinese workers were taken hostages.

The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) took responsibility for the attack. The ONLF described the attack as "military operations against units of the Ethiopian armed forces guarding an oil exploration site." The group did not give details of causalities. However, it said it had wiped out three Ethiopian military units. The group added it was holding six Chinese workers whom it said had been removed for their own safety and were being treated well. The Chinse government condemned the attack and demanded for the safe release of the hostages.  

All the Chinese are employees of Zhongyuan Petroleum Exploration Bureau (ZPEB), a Chinese petroleum company contracted by a company called South West Energy. In December 2005, South West Energy signed a petroleum exploration and development agreement with the Ethiopian Ministry of Mines and Energy (MME) to prospect for oil in the Ogaden basin. The company took an exploration area in Degahbur zone which covers 21,187 sq. km of land.

Tewodros Ashenafi, an American of Ethiopian origin, is the founder and owner of South West Energy. The company is licensed in Hong Kong. Last year it hired the Chinese petroleum company, ZPEB for seismic survey work and three months ago it began to conduct the seismic survey. Most of the Ethiopians killed in the attack were daily laborers, guards and other support staff. Some members of the defense force were also killed during the surprise attack.

Tewodros Ashenafi was not available for comment. The remains of the nine Chinse will be flown to China today. ZPEB also works for the Malaysian oil and gas company, Petronas, which prospects for oil in the Gambella and the Ogaden basins. Petronas, which took the Gambella basin on concession on June 2003, subcontracted the exploration work to ZPEB.

In 2004 ZPEB began to conduct seismic survey in the Gambella basin, located in the western part of Ethiopia close to the Sudanese border. Last year, ZPEB drilled the first exploration well in the Gambella basin in Gigaw locality. ZPEB further commenced the drilling of the second exploration well in Gambella in another locality called Jakaranda last February. In August 2005 Petronas acquired three exploration blocks in the Ogaden basin. The exploration areas are found in Genale, Wel Wel, Warder and Fer Fer localities. The total exploration area covers 9100 sq km of land.
 
Last year, ZPEB entered in to another agreement with Petronas to undertake exploration activities in Petronas's new exploration areas in the Ogaden basin and began to collect seismic data in the exploration areas last year.

 ZPEB has 157 Chinese and Ethiopian employees working in Degahbur. The Chinese staffs ware being evacuated. Following Tuesday's attack ZPEB, South West and Petronas have suspended operations in Ogaden.

Previously, South West Energy and Petronas had received several warnings from unidentified individuals. The ONLF had also warned the companies to stop operations in the Ogaden. The companies recently expressed their security concerns to officials of the MME. Officials of MME informed the Ministry of Defense of the security concerns. Other companies which have exploration areas in the Ogaden are worried by the incident.

Pexco, a company licensed in the Netherlands and based in Malaysia, acquired an exploration area covering 29,865 sq km of land in December 2005. It has been processing geological data collected from the exploration area. The company has leased an aircraft to conduct airborne magnetic and gravity surveys. It had planned to start the airborne survey next June.
 
In a statement sent to The Reporter, Pexco said at the moment it was not in a position to discuss its ongoing exploration program in Ethiopia. "It is our intention to work with the MME and other oil exploration companies operating in Ethiopia to find a secure way forward," the statement said. "With respect to the April 24 armed attack on the seismic operations being carried out in the Ogaden, Pexco Exploration (East Africa) NV would like to express its deepest sympathy to the companies affected, and the family and friends of the deceased and missing," it added.

A Swedish company called Lundin has also acquired an exploration area covering 24,420 sq km of land in Ogaden in November last year. Lundin did not yet start operations in the field.

Representatives of South West Energy, Petronas and Pexco are holding talks with officials of MME. As the minister of MME, Alemayehu Tegenu, is out of the country on a working visit, state minister Sinknesh Ejigu and other officials of the MME are discussing the issue with representatives of the petroleum companies.
 
The Ethiopian government has blamed Eritrea for masterminding the attack. It described the incident as a massacre committed by a terrorist group backed by the Eritrean government. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi on Tuesday said that the incident was an organized massacre. Meles said his government was closely following the developments. "We are thinking how we could avoid similar incidents in the future," he said.

Ambassador Mohamoud Dirir, Minister of Culture and Tourism, told The Reporter that while the Ethiopian government was engaged in development activities all across the nation, the Eritrean government (Sha'ebia) was trying to destabilize the country. "At a time when we are to celebrate the Ethiopian millennium and to build the country's image Sha'ebia is trying to disturb this effort," Ambassador Mohamoud said.

The minister described Tuesday's attack as an indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians. "The victims are innocent civilians engaged in development activities. The foreigners came to develop our country," he added. Ambassador Mohamoud told The Reporter that the people in the Somali region were outraged by the massacre.
 
In a related news, the Heads of Mission of the Ethiopia Partners Group denounced Tuesday's attack. In a statement issued on Thursday, the Ethiopia Partners Group (former Ambassadors Donors Group) expressed its dismay at the incident "The Heads of Mission of the Ethiopia Partners Group express their dismay at the massacre perpetrated in Ogaden against Ethiopian and Chinese nationals. They condemn the killings as well as the subsequent abductions," the statement said.

 The heads of mission called for the safe release of the abducted individuals. "They reiterate their belief that the resolution of disagreements should be sought through peaceful means," the statement added.

Sources:The Reporter
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