* Rebel group to disarm, form political party
* Another rebel group still threatens oil firms
By Barry Malone
ADDIS ABABA, April 9 (Reuters) - An Islamist rebel group which had threatened to attack oil and gas firms exploring a potentially mineral-rich region of Ethiopia has surrendered, the government said on Friday.
The United Western Somali Liberation Front (UWSLF) had been fighting since the 1960s for independence for Ethiopia’s Somali region — which includes the Ogaden and accounts for one-fifth of the country’s landmass — government head of information Bereket Simon told reporters.
“After discussing with the government, the leaders of the organisation in totality have accepted to abide by the constitution of Ethiopia and desist from any armed practice,” Bereket said. The rebels would now disarm and form a political party, he added.
The UWSLF and another rebel group, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), want independence for the region which borders Somalia, and had warned oil and gas firms not to explore there.
Foreign firms, including Malaysia’s Petronas [PETR.UL] and Vancouver-based Africa Oil Corporation AOI.V, are prospecting in the area.
The separatist cause has been fuelled by widespread resentment at the region’s low level of development. Until Chinese engineers arrived in 2007, the entire region had only 30 km (20 miles) of tarmac road.
Bereket said the rebels had decided to surrender at the urging of locals who felt the insurgency was hampering government efforts to develop the region.
“They pursued a mistaken path, now they are desisting. We will respect their right to engage in peaceful, legal politics,” Bereket added.
In 2007 the ONLF attacked an oilfield run by Sinopec, Asia’s biggest refiner and China’s second largest oil and gas producer, killing 74 people. Sinopec then pulled out of the region.
Most of Ethiopia’s oil and gas exploration activities have centred on the vast desert province.
Ethiopia calls the ONLF a terrorist group, which it says is supported by rival and neighbour Eritrea. The ONLF routinely accuses government forces of human rights abuses.
Cash-strapped Ethiopia is keen to attract foreign investors and says the ONLF have been weakened since the 2007 attack. (Editing by George Obulutsa and Elizabeth Fullerton)