ADDIS ABABA: The seven Chinese oil workers kidnapped in a deadly raid staged by rebels on an oilfield in Ethiopia last Tuesday have been released, the Ethiopian Ministry of Defense told Xinhua yesterday.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) confirmed the news, saying that the kidnapped workers were on their way to Jijiga, capital of the Ethiopia's Somali state where they were kidnapped.
"I can confirm that they have been released," an ICRC spokesman told reporters.
"I don't know if they have got there yet."
Bereket Simon, an advisor to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, also confirmed the release.
As it was raining hard around the Jijiga area, the Chinese workers might arrive at the city a bit later in the day, an official from the defense ministry said.
The Chinese embassy, however, said the release was yet to be verified.
Gunmen killed 65 Ethiopians and nine Chinese in the pre-dawn assault on the exploration field in Ethiopia's barren eastern Ogaden region - one of the worst attacks to date on China's facilities in Africa.
Adurahmin Mohammed Mahdi, a London-based spokesman for the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) rebels which launched the attack, told Reuters by telephone: "We handed them (the Chinese workers) over to the ICRC. They are all very healthy. They are uninjured and very happy."
The Chinese staff worked for Zhongyuan Petroleum Exploration Bureau, part of the much larger Sinopec, China's biggest refiner and petrochemicals producer.
Mahdi, the ONLF spokesman, said two Ethiopian men were also freed with the Chinese yesterday after negotiations between the rebels' armed wing, ICRC officials and local Ogaden elders. "It all went very smoothly," he said.
"There was a ceasefire which we respected and the Ethiopians respected. The handover took place close to where the incident happened."
He said the freed workers had been reassured the ONLF, which has been fighting for independence from Ethiopia since 1984, had nothing against the Chinese people. "We never meant to take them as hostages," Mahdi said.
The ONLF has blamed the deaths of the Chinese workers killed in Tuesday's attack on explosions caused by munitions during a fierce battle with Ethiopian troops guarding the facility.
Beijing has condemned Tuesday's attack and said it will not change its policy of promoting economic cooperation with Africa.
Bodies brought back
Meanwhile, a chartered plane carrying the bodies of the nine Chinese oil workers was expected to arrive in Zhengzhou, capital of Central China's Henan Province, early this morning.
A brief mourning ceremony was to be held at the airport. The bodies will be cremated soon after their arrival.
In another development, the state-owned Ethiopian Telecommunication Corporation and ZTE, a Chinese telecom company, on Saturday signed a $158-million deal on three telecom service expansion projects, a move seen as a reaffirmation of the commitment of both countries to economic cooperation.
Source: China Daily - Agencies