Nine Chinese oil workers were among 74 people killed in an attack on a remote oil exploration site in eastern Ethiopia, the deadliest incident involving the Chinese since a pursuit of raw materials took them to Africa.

China condemned the attack and said it was working for the release of the Chinese citizens taken hostage in the assault.

”The Chinese government strongly condemns this atrocious armed attack, mourns for the Chinese and Ethiopian victims and expresses deep sympathies to their families and those injured in the attack,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said in a statement posted on the ministry’s website.

Responsibility for the massacre was claimed in an e-mail statement by separatist rebels of the Ogaden National Liberation Front, but does not appear to have specifically singled out the Chinese, who have developed close ties with prime minister Meles Zenawi’s government.

However, the attack follows repeated warnings by members of the ONLF for foreign oil companies to leave their area.

Abderaman Mahdi, a spokesman for the rebels, said the deaths followed a battle between their fighters and Ethiopian soldiers protecting the exploration site. Any civilians killed – including the Chinese – were in the crossfire, he said. He added that the ONLF had taken five Chinese workers alive, and would be in touch with the International Red Cross to return them.

“It is very unfortunate. But we don’t allow anybody to drill on our land without our permission. The Ethiopians do not control the Ogaden and we have warned the Chinese that we will not allow them to drill there. They want our wealth without our consent,” he said by phone.

“The Chinese used to be more populist,” the spokesman added, “but now they are turning into colonialists themselves. First there were the Russians, then the Americans, now it is them.”

The Chinese government and state-owned companies have ramped up their commitment to Africa in recent years, mainly to secure resources needed to power industry at home. Ethiopia’s proven reserves of oil and gas are minimal but analysts believe there is potential, particularly for gas, in the Ogaden. The remote region, which borders Somalia, was the scene for a war between the two countries in the 1970s.

Bereket Simon, an adviser to the Ethiopian prime minister, said 65 Ethiopians, mostly civilians, were killed in the attack. The nine Chinese killed were working for the Zhongyuan Petroleum Exploration Bureau, a division of Sinopec, China’s largest refiner and petrochemicals producer, which has an overseas-listed subsidiary.

He vowed that the government would do “whatever it takes to track down these terrorists and bring them to justice” and blamed neighbouring Eritrea for arming and supporting them.

The Chinese company was subcontracted by Petronas, the Malaysian company.

Chinese companies are working in other conflict-prone zones of the continent including southern Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria.

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