Armed men in western Ethiopia have rounded up and executed dozens of men, women and children, in a “brutal” attack officials blamed on an armed group that is active in the region.
According to Amnesty International, Sunday’s attack on Gawa Qanqa village in Guliso District of West Wellega Zone took place a day after government forces unexpectedly left the area.
The exact death toll was not yet known. Amnesty, citing survivors, said on Monday at least 54 members of the Amhara ethnic group – Ethiopia’s second-largest – were killed. Earlier, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said in a statement the official death toll stood at 32 people but the actual number could be much higher.
The commission said the victims “were dragged from their homes and taken to a school, where they were killed”, in a “massacre” that involved up to 60 “armed and unarmed assailants”.
There has been no claim of responsibility, but the Oromia regional government said the attackers belonged to the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), an armed group blamed for kidnappings and bomb attacks in western and southern Ethiopia.
Survivors of the attack who spoke to the Amhara region’s affiliated broadcaster, Amhara Mass Media Agency, said ethnic Amharas were targeted.
“The armed group gathered 200 people for a meeting around 5pm, and then started shooting at them. Several people were killed as a result,” the broadcaster quoted one survivor as saying. The survivor said a school and some 120 houses were burned.
A survivor who spoke by phone to AFP news agency also said the violence erupted after soldiers stationed in the area abruptly and inexplicably left, allowing OLA fighters to round up civilians.
“After collecting us, they opened fire on us, and then afterwards looted cattle and burned down houses,” said the survivor, who spoke on condition of anonymity for safety reasons.
“I have counted more than 50 corpses, and I know there were others hit by bullets,” the survivor said.
The OLA, believed to number in the low thousands, broke off from the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), an opposition party that spent years in exile but was allowed to return to Ethiopia after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018.
Since December 2018, the Ethiopian army has been deployed in western and southern Oromia to combat the OLA’s armed campaign.
የጥቃት ሰለባ ለሆኑ ዜጎቻችን ቤተሰቦች መጽናናትን እንመኛለን።
— Office of the Prime Minister – Ethiopia (@PMEthiopia) November 2, 2020
Abiy on Monday condemned the “heartbreaking” attack, saying he had deployed security forces to the area.
“Ethiopia’s enemies are vowing either to rule the country or ruin it, and they are doing everything they can to achieve this. One of their tactics is to arm civilians and carry out barbaric attacks based on identity,” Abiy said in a statement.
The incident is likely to further ramp up pressure on Abiy, winner of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, to improve security in a country struggling with rising ethnic violence.
Deprose Muchena, Amnesty’s regional director for East and Southern Africa, said the “senseless” attack was “the latest in a series of killings in the country in which members of ethnic minorities have been deliberately targeted”.
“The fact that this horrendous incident occurred shortly after government troops abruptly withdrew from the area in unexplained circumstances raises questions that must be answered,” he added, calling for an investigation.
The EHRC also urged authorities to probe why the military withdrew from the area.
“These gruesome killings of civilians are unconscionable and flout basic principles of humanity,” said Daniel Bekele, the head of the commission. “No amount of grievance can justify such brutality and perpetrators should be held to account.”
The National Movement of Amhara (NAMA), an opposition party, denounced the government over its failure to protect civilians.
“The government has failed in its duty to protect the safety of citizens,” Dessalegn Chanie, a senior member of NAMA, told The Associated Press news agency, adding that Ethiopia’s language-based federal system is the main cause for the killings.
“Ethnic Amharas residing outside of the Amhara region are being labelled as outsiders and are exposed to repeated attacks.”