ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia - Ethiopian rebels who have fought alongside Islamic militants in neighboring Somalia stormed a Chinese-run oil field at dawn yesterday, killing 74 people and destroying the exploration facility in a restive border region.

It was the first such attack on a foreign company in this Horn of Africa nation, unlike Nigeria in west Africa, where rebel groups often attack international oil concerns.

Chinese officials said nine Chinese oil workers and 65 Ethiopians died and seven Chinese were taken away by the rebels.

The assault by more than 200 gunmen lasted nearly an hour, and followed a warning last year from the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front against any investment in eastern Ethiopia's Ogaden area that could aid the U.S.-allied government.

Formed by Ethiopia's ethnic Somalian minority, the Muslim group has been fighting for secession of the Kansas-sized region with four million inhabitants since the early 1990s, but it had mounted only hit-and-run attacks on government troops in recent years.

The large scale of the attack at the small town of Abole, near the Somalian border, could signal a broadening of the fighting in Somalia, where the Ethiopian army is supporting the U.N.-backed interim Somalian government in a war with Islamic insurgents.

"This was a cold-blooded killing," Bereket Simon, a special adviser to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, said.

J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the Ogaden rebels were a "convenient vehicle for those who want to destabilize Ethiopia." He said both Somalia's Islamic militants and the Eritrea government could be backers.

Eritreans won their independence from Ethiopia in 1991 after a bloody three-decade rebellion, and the two nations fought a 21/2-year war over their disputed border that ended in 2000.

The Christian-led Ethiopian government, deploying the region's strongest army, has allied with the United States.

Ethiopia Still Holding N.J. Man

Ethiopia has decided for now not to free an American Muslim who was captured trying to flee war-torn Somalia and was held without charges in Kenya and Ethiopia for more than four months, an internal U.S. government document says.

The latest impediment to Amir Mohamed Meshal's return follows the resolution of an internal U.S. government squabble that had blocked his return. The Bush administration now seeks to bring him back as soon as possible, officials say.

"The Ethiopians have changed their minds," said an internal U.S. memo read yesterday

to McClatchy Newspapers.

It gave no reason for

the turnaround.

Ethiopia had been expected to release Meshal, 24, of Tinton Falls, in Monmouth County, N.J., from a secret prison after an April 13 hearing in Addis Ababa at which a military tribunal declined to charge him with a crime, U.S. officials said.

- McClatchy Newspapers

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