The suspected death toll in an attack by gunmen in Ethiopia’s western Oromia region has risen, with new evidence suggesting between 260 and 320 civilians were killed on Saturday.
Reports of the massacre surfaced on Sunday, as survivors described one of the deadliest such incidents in several years in Ethiopia.
The country’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed condemned what he called “horrific acts” in Oromia, but gave no details of the violence.
“Attacks on innocent civilians and the destruction of livelihoods by unlawful and irregular forces are unacceptable,” Abiy said on Twitter on Monday, pledging “zero tolerance for horrific acts…committed by elements whose main objective is to terrorize communities”.
Oromia, home to Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, as well as people from other communities, has experienced unrest for many years, rooted in grievances about political marginalization and central government neglect. Abiy is an Oromo, the first to be in charge of the Ethiopian government, but some Oromo believe he betrayed the interests of the community.
Two residents who described Saturday’s attack said the victims were ethnic Amharas, a minority in the area.
There was no indication that the attack was directly linked to a conflict in the northern Tigray region, which began in November 2020 and has killed thousands and displaced millions.
The attack happened in the Gimbi district of the western zone of Wollega in the western part of Oromia. One resident gave a figure of 260 dead, the other said 320. Residents declined to give their names for fear of their safety.
“So far, we have buried 260 people, and I have been involved in collecting the bodies and burying the bodies. We just buried them at a farm. We buried 50-60 bodies in single graves said one resident.
He said he survived by hiding in a ditch, but lost four siblings and three cousins in the attack.
The other resident said the attackers were Oromos from a group called the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA).
“It was a massacre of Amharas,” he said, adding that he survived hiding in a forest and heard the attackers speaking in the Oromo language.
On Sunday, a witness said the local Amhara community was desperate to be relocated “before another round of massacres occurs”, adding that ethnic Amharas who settled in the area around 30 years ago in the resettlement programs were “killed like chickens”.
In a statement, the Oromia Regional Government blamed the Oromo Liberation Army, saying the rebels attacked “after being unable to resist operations launched by [federal] security forces”.
The OLA is an illegal splinter group from the Oromo Liberation Front, a once banned opposition group that returned from exile after Abiy took office in 2018. The group formed an alliance the year last with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which is fighting the federal government in the northern region. There was no suggestion of TPLF involvement in Saturday’s attack in Gimbi.
In recent months, a new government offensive has forced the OLA to withdraw from some areas where it previously had significant influence. The massacre follows several counterattacks by the group over the past week.
An OLA spokesman, Odaa Tarbii, denied the allegations. “The attack you refer to was committed by the army and the local regime militia as they retreated from their camp in Gimbi following our recent offensive,” he said in a message to the Associated Press.
“They fled to an area called Tole, where they attacked the local population and destroyed their property in retaliation for their supposed support for the OLA. Our fighters had not even reached this area when the attacks took place.
Ethiopia is experiencing widespread ethnic tensions in several regions, mostly due to historical grievances and political tensions. The Amhara people, the second largest ethnic group among Ethiopia’s more than 110 million people, have been frequently targeted in areas like Oromia.
Will Davison, an Ethiopia expert with the International Crisis Group, said the situation in Oromia was deteriorating.
“The problems have political roots and there is no sign that they are being solved. So right now that means more and more intense violence on both sides,” Davison said.
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