Gov't involved in Gambella attack, says rights group

Government defence forces helped attack an ethnic group in western Ethiopia where least 93 people were killed, the country’s human rights council claimed. Addressing a press conference in the capital, Addis Ababa, on Wednesday, Prof Mesfin Wolde-Mariam, the president of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (ERCHO), said local forces were involved in the attack on a tribe living in Gambella.

The government has dismissed the allegations as unfounded.

The fighting erupted after eight people, including three government officials, were murdered when the United Nations-plated vehicle they were travelling in was ambushed in mid-December. The bodies of the men were badly mutilated, but the defence forces later paraded them through Gambella town, thereby provoking even greater outrage, ERCHO said.

A local tribe, the Anyuak, was blamed for the ambush, which, Mesfin said, was the spark that had ignited the current tensions in Gambella town. In its wake, local groups, bent on revenge, started attacking the Anyuak. He noted that tensions already existing prior to the ambush between ethnic groups over land and political rights were serving to exacerbate the fighting.

Mesfin said those tensions were between the five ethnic groups originally inhabiting the region - including the Anyuak - on the one hand, and residents who were more recent arrivals from other parts of the country, known as highlanders, on the other hand. Some of these highlanders had taken to accusing the Anyuak of "high-handed behaviour" and of failing to show them due respect.

In the weeks following the ambush, the region, which is some 800 km west of the capital, Addis Ababa, has witnessed an explosion of violence and instability.

According to aid agencies working in Sudan, 16,000 Anyuak have fled across the border in recent weeks, with 300 new refugees arriving daily. Okelo Akuai, the ethnic Anyuak president of Gambella Regional State, is believed to have fled to Sudan along with his driver and two bodyguards.

Mesfin said ERCHO had the names of 93 Anyuaks who had been murdered in the last four weeks – most of them the day after the ambush. He went on to note, however, that the overall death toll could be more than 300 after groups of highlanders armed with axes, hatchets, knives and daggers attacked Anyuaks living in Gambella town. "It is reasonable to state that many more people have been killed than our numbers suggest. What happened in Gambella was verging on genocide," he said.

Mesfin went on to say that in the run-up to the attack, 5,000 Anyuaks had sought refuge in one of the town's churches, because soldiers had blocked the roads leading out of the town. "The mob, in collaboration with members of the [government] defence forces, continued to attack those who could not find anywhere to hide. Many were killed or sustained severe and light injures," added Mesfin, who has been the president of ERCHO for eight years.

He asserted that the country’s "ethnic policy" was fuelling conflict. "These conflicts are becoming alarming and increasing," Prof Mesfin added. The country’s regions, he asserted, were divided along ethnic lines, with the largest ethnic groups gaining the most seats in local administrations. People had therefore become more conscious and sensitive of their ethnicity.

"There are feelings running high, especially in the marginal areas," he said, noting that solutions such as having recourse to the services of local elders could serve as a contributory means towards defusing tensions. "This would stop them hating each other," he told journalists. "But if you leave it to fester, it gets worse."

Meanwhile, the government spokesman, Zemedkun Teckle, has insisted that the government’s death toll of 57 is correct. He rejected claims that the defence forces might have been involved. "There is no reason for the troops to kill civilians. They are there to stop the killings," said Zemedkun, from the information ministry. In this context, he noted that at least 56 people suspected on involvement in the violence had been arrested.