By Rob Crilly | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor and Will Connors | Contributor of The Christian Science Monitor
Khartoum, Sudan and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - As the initial shock of this week's rebel raid on a Chinese oil installation in Ethiopia begins to fade, there is a growing realization that Somalia's increasingly brutal insurgency is starting to seep across the Horn of Africa.
Tuesday's early morning raid in Ethiopia's remote southeast Ogaden region near the border with Somalia, left 74 people dead, including nine Chinese oil workers.
Ethiopian analysts say the unprecedented scale of the attack, claimed by the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), suggested it could only have been carried out with support from Islamists in neighboring Somalia, who were routed by Ethiopian forces in a two-week, Christmas-time invasion. Some analysts see this as an indication that the battle for control of Somalia's capital, Mogadishu is becoming a regional conflict.
Mohamed Guyo, an analyst with the Institute of Security Studies in Nairobi, Kenya, says there is a close relationship between Somalia's Islamists and several rebel groups in Ethiopia.
He says he expects to see more attacks mounted on Ethiopia as insurgents in Mogadishu look for allies in their struggle against occupying Ethiopian forces.
"The [ONLF's] enemy is the Ethiopian government and the enemy of [Somalia's Islamists] is the Ethiopian government, so there has been a lot of sharing of resources not just in terms of arms and ammunition, but other things such as sharing media and diplomatic facilities," he says.
Hunt for the attackers
Ethiopian troops began scouring the area around the oil field Wednesday searching for seven oil workers abducted by the rebels.
Witnesses said some 200 gunmen stormed the facility before dawn, killing nine Chinese oil workers and 65 Ethiopians.
The clashes took place in Abole, a small town about 75 miles from the regional capital, Jijiga.
In a statement released hours after the raid, the ONLF claimed responsibility for the attack and said its commando unit had destroyed the facility.
The rebel group justified the attack by saying ethnic Somalis had been cleared from their land and forcefully removed from their homes by Ethiopian troops to make way for the Chinese firm.
The statement threatened further action against oil companies that struck deals with the Ethiopian government.
"We urge all international oil companies to refrain from entering into agreements with the Ethiopian government .... Oil investments in Ogaden will result in a similar loss for any firm that believes assurances of security it receives from the Ethiopian government which has never been in effective control of Ogaden."
The attack was condemned in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
Abdi Wafa, a political science lecturer at Addis Ababa University and an Ethiopian of Somali ethnicity from the same region where the attack took place, said: "It was cowardly. As a Somali and an Ethiopian, I don't feel good about it at all. I don't think the families of the innocent victims will forgive them."
Tensions throughout the region have been ratcheted up in the past year following the emergence of Somalia's Islamists. They took control of Mogadishu last June and spread rapidly across the country.
They were defeated in December by US-backed Ethiopian troops sent by a government concerned at the rise of Islamic extremism on its doorstep.
Ethiopia blames neighbors
Ethiopian soldiers are now becoming mired in a battle against the hard-line remnants of the Islamists, who are believed to be receiving aid from Eritrea, a bitter rival of Ethiopia.
Yesterday the Ethiopian government was quick to link Eritrea and Somali extremists with the oilfield attack.
"The terrorist network that extends from [Eritrea's capital, Asmara] to Somalia and beyond has, once again, attacked and killed civilians," it said in a statement issued by its embassy in London.
A report published by the United Nations last year suggests that the ONLF had forged links with Somalia's Islamists and their Eritrean sponsors.
The arms-monitoring report revealed that ONLF leaders were frequent visitors to the Somali home of Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys in the months before his Islamic Courts Union took control of Mogadishu and much of Somalia last year.
ONLF members traveled there to receive training and to collect arms sent from Eritrea, which has a history of supporting Ethiopia's opponents, according to the report published last May.
Sheikh Aweys is wanted by the US in connection with Islamic terrorism.
David Shinn, a former US ambassador to Ethiopia, said: "In the past ONLF attacks have been significantly more modest than this, so to put together that size of a group - if the reports are accurate - is very surprising.
"It might indicate growing unrest in the region generally and particularly in Somalia itself, and that might be giving additional support to the ONLF in the Ogaden."
A Western diplomatic source who spoke on condition of anonymity said it was clear that the two elements were starting to think about combining. He said the ONLF would gain outside support while the Somali insurgents had an opportunity to make Ethiopia think twice about their deployment in Somalia.
"It's a wake-up call to the Ethiopian forces who are finding themselves overstretched and unable to defend themselves properly, because of their actions in Mogadishu," he said.