Gunmen kill 30 people in attack in western Ethiopia, witnesses say

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Gunmen killed 30 civilians in an attack on a village in the west of the Ethiopian region of Oromiya, witnesses said on Wednesday, the latest outbreak of ethnic violence to challenge the federal government in the fractious nation.

Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country, is struggling to control several flashpoints where ethnic rivalries over land, power and resources have ignited ahead of national elections scheduled for June.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has promised to hold the first free and fair polls, but some of his reforms have also emboldened regional strongmen and groups angered by what they describe as decades of government repression.

Farmer Wossen Andaege, 50, said his neighbours were killed during the Tuesday night attack in the West Wollega Zone of Oromiya. He identified the victims as ethnic Amharas.

“We took the bodies using a car and we buried 30 people,” said Wossen by phone. He said he and his family had heard gunshots and fled to a nearby government office to wait for protection from federal troops.

Local authorities blamed the attack, in which 15 more people were wounded, on a splinter group from the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), known as OLF Shane or the Oromo Liberation Army. The OLF is an opposition party that spent years in exile but was unbanned after Abiy took office in 2018.

The Oromo are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group and the Amhara are its second largest. The two neighbouring regions of Amhara and Oromiya share a border. Civilians from one ethnic group living on the other side of the border have both been subject to attacks in recent months.

OLF Shane says it is fighting for the rights of the Oromos. Odaa Tarbii, a spokesperson for the group, denied responsibility for the attack in an email to Reuters.

“These allegations directed towards us are false and are part of a long-running concerted operation by the government to frame the Oromo Liberation Army as a lawless outfit,” he wrote.

Elias Umeta, head of Western Wollega Zone, didn’t respond to requests for comment. The Oromiya region’s communications office issued a statement saying OLF Shane had killed an unknown number of civilians.

The state-affiliated Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said: “The latest attacks on civilians in Western Wollega show that the security situation in the area has not improved and is instead spreading to neighbouring regions and causing additional human rights violations.”

Reporting by Addis Ababa Newsroom; Writing by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Jon Boyle, Hugh Lawson and Nick Macfie