Ethiopia's Abiy accuses OLA rebels of new 'massacre'

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Monday accused rebels of carrying out a new "massacre" of civilians in a restive area in the far west of the country and vowed to wipe out the group.

FILE: Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed addresses guests in Addis Ababa Meskel Square, on 13 June 2021, during the official inauguration of the city's landmark. Picture: EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP

ADDIS ABABA - Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Monday accused rebels of carrying out a new "massacre" of civilians in a restive area in the far west of the country and vowed to wipe out the group.

Abiy said the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), which is designated a terrorist organisation by Addis Ababa, was "inflicting damage" on people as its fighters fled an offensive by security forces in western Oromia.

"Citizens living in the Qellem Wollega zone of Oromia state have been massacred," he said on Twitter, without giving details.

"We will pursue this terrorist group to the end and eradicate it," he added.

It was not possible to verify the information as access to western Oromia is restricted, and the area concerned was under a communications blackout.

Officials have blamed the OLA for a number of massacres targeting Amharas, Ethiopia's second largest ethnic group, although the rebels have denied responsibility.

The US-based Amhara Association of America (AAA) said in a message to AFP that the attack targeted Amhara in Mender 20 (Village 20) in the Hawa Gelan district of Qellem Wollega.

"One of our investigators did talk to three eyewitnesses... hiding in a forest nearby," the AAA said, adding that the attack began at 6:00 am on Monday and was still going on when he spoke to the witnesses around noon.

It said the telecommunications network in the zone had been cut since around 1:00 pm.

'BODIES BEING COLLECTED'

"Nobody came to our rescue," one survivor was quoted as telling the Amhara Media Corporation, a state-run regional outlet.

"They (the attackers) have left and bodies are now being picked up, so far 300 (bodies) have been collected. But it's still early, there are many others whose whereabouts we don’t know."

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, a state-affiliated independent body, said it was alarmed by the reports and called for an "urgent reinforcement" of government security forces to prevent further civilian deaths.

It said in a statement that government security forces were reported to have reached the area but that residents continued to seek shelter elsewhere.

"The continued insecurity in the area and what appears to be the ethnically targeted killing of residents must be put to a stop immediately," EHRC chief commissioner Daniel Bekele said in a statement.

Ethiopia's armed forces have for years been fighting a rebellion by the OLA in Oromia, the largest and most populous region which borders South Sudan.

In June, several hundred people, mostly Amhara, were massacred by gunmen in the village of Tole in West Wollega, an area adjacent to Qellem Wollega, according to witnesses.

Local authorities said the OLA was responsible, but the rebels denied any role in the killings and blamed a pro-government militia.

No official toll has been published, but Abiy spokeswoman Billene Seyoum told reporters on June 30 that 338 victims had been identified so far.

UN rights chief Michele Bachelet called on the Ethiopian authorities to conduct "prompt, impartial and thorough" investigations into the Tole attack.

Also in June, the OLA attacked the Gambella regional capital - the first such strike on a major city by the rebels.

US-based Human Rights Watch said on Monday it had documented serious abuses in Oromia, including in the west where an "abusive" government campaign against the OLA had trapped civilians in the crossfire.

It said the Tigray conflict in northern Ethiopia was overshadowing a "persistent cycle of violence" against civilians by security forces and armed groups in Oromia.

The OLA last year allied with the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which has been fighting government forces in the north since November 2020.