Ethiopia massacre: Dozens killed by rebel army in schoolyard attack

Survivors of a massacre by rebels in western Ethiopia have counted 54 bodies in a schoolyard after the latest attack to target ethnic minorities, Amnesty International has said.

Human rights groups are asking why federal soldiers left the area hours before attackers moved in and targeted ethnic Amharas.

Prime minister Abiy Ahmed denounced the killing of people based on identity, adding that security forces had been deployed to the area and "started taking measures".

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Ethnic violence is posing the greatest challenge yet to the prime minister, who was last year's Nobel Peace Prize winner for his sweeping political reforms.

Prime minister Abiy Ahmed denounced the killing of people based on identity, adding that security forces had been deployed to the area and "started taking measures". (Photo by Phill Magakoe / AFP) (Photo by PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images)
Prime minister Abiy Ahmed denounced the killing of people based on identity, adding that security forces had been deployed to the area and "started taking measures". (Photo by Phill Magakoe / AFP) (Photo by PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images)

"Ethiopia's enemies are vowing either to rule the country or ruin it, and they are doing everything they can to achieve this," he said in a Facebook post.

"One of their tactics is to arm civilians and carry out barbaric attacks based on identity. (For me) this is heartbreaking."

Ethiopia's government blamed a rebel group, the Oromo Liberation Army, for the attacks in the far western part of Oromia, in an area bordering South Sudan and a few hundred miles from the capital, Addis Ababa.

The head of the Oromia region police commission, Ararsa Merdasa, told the state broadcaster the death toll was 32 and "some 200 families have fled the area".

Survivors of the attack in the Guliso District of West Wellega Zone told Amnesty International that federal troops had withdrawn unexpectedly and the rebels arrived hours later, identifying themselves as the OLA and announcing that they controlled the area.

"Militants gathered people who did not manage to flee, mainly women, children and the elderly, and killed them," the Amnesty statement said.

Survivors hid in a forest nearby. One told the human rights group he found the bodies of his brother, sister-in-law and three children in the schoolyard with bullet wounds.

"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," said Amnesty International's regional director Deprose Muchena.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission noted the government's death toll of 32 but said preliminary evidence "indicates the number is very likely to exceed that tally".

Attackers numbered up to 60, the commission said. Ethnic Amharas "were dragged from their homes and taken to a school, where they were killed".

The commission urged the federal government to "shed light on the reasons behind the military's withdrawal from an area long known to be vulnerable to attacks" and to make sure civilians are protected.

Amharas are the second most populous ethnic group in Ethiopia after Oromos. They have also been targeted by gunmen in the Western Benishangul Gumuz and Southern regions in recent weeks, leaving several dozen dead.

The Oromia region's communications office called the latest assault a "brutal terror attack". Getachew Balcha, the region's spokesman, said it was aimed at creating havoc and putting psychological pressure on citizens.

"The armed group gathered 200 people for a meeting around 5pm and then started shooting at them," the Amhara region's affiliated broadcaster, Amhara Mass Media Agency, quoted one survivor as saying. The survivor said a school and 120 houses were burned.

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