In the latest sign of the deep crisis that has engulfed Ethiopia, conflict in the vast Oromia region – the heartland of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed – is escalating as political and ethnic tensions explode.
It has seen Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) rebels raid towns that were once out of their reach, and hold “graduation ceremonies” to boast of new recruits, while the government has responded with troop reinforcements and drone strikes as it rules out talks to end the crisis.
Adding to the dangerous cocktail, much-feared militias from the rival Amhara ethnic group are widely believed to have crossed into Oromia to fight the rebels. The OLA are increasingly projecting themselves as the champions of Oromo nationalism, gaining publicity in opposition-linked media outlets that, just a few years ago, treated them as marginal players in Ethiopian politics.
The government-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (HRC) says that “hundreds” of people have been killed in a “gruesome manner” in the past five months in Oromia, while a United Nations (UN) agency says almost a million people have been forced from their homes.
All sides in the conflict deny accusations they have committed human rights abuses.
A clear demonstration of the growing strength of the OLA came in November, when its fighters stormed Nekemte, a strategically important town with roads leading to Mr Abiy’s home village, the capital, Addis Ababa, and a newly built mega dam that is vital to Ethiopia’s electricity needs.
The government did not comment on the Nekemte attack, just as it does not on most other attacks, while the OLA said it had freed “political prisoners” from the town’s jail.
Residents told the BBC that gun-battles between government troops and the rebels had claimed the lives of civilians, though they could not give an exact number as casualty figures are not collated.
One resident said he had lost two of his children in the Sunday morning attack – a 27-year-old son and a 16-year-old daughter, who was a top performer in school. Both were killed while they were in a room,” he said, blaming government forces for shooting into their home. -BBC