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ETHIOPIA: 10,000 flee yet more fighting in the west

ADDIS ABABA, 12 February 2004 (IRIN) - Ten thousand people have fled ethnic fighting in western Ethiopia that has claimed more than 250 lives, according to government officials. Clashes had erupted at a gold mine, in which 196 people were killed in a single day; the killings being one of the worst instances of ethnic violence seen in Ethiopia in recent years, the government said on Wednesday.

The fighting flared up just weeks after 60 people were killed in the troubled Gambella region, the federal affairs ministry said in a statement. In the four-page report stated that local police forces had been "overwhelmed" in the violence, and that the army had been sent in to restore order.

The latest events come in the wake of Britain expressing alarm at the unrest In Gambella region. International Development Secretary Hilary Benn told journalists during a four-day visit to Ethiopia that the international community was "greatly concerned".

The government blamed the renewed fighting on armed elements among the Anyuak – an ethnic group in Gambella which fears it is losing political power there. "These atrocities were conducted by an armed group of over 200 men who claim to be the leaders of the Anyuak," the ministry said in reference to the attack on the gold mine, which Anyuak claim as being on their territory.
Most of the victims originated from the neighbouring Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples' Regional State.

The ministry's statement attributed the violence to poor governance, noting that economic development had "lagged behind" in the Gambella National Regional State. Ethnic tensions had also been simmering, it said. Gambella, which borders on Sudan, is home to Nuer, Anyuak, Majenger, Opou and Komo ethnic groups, but is also inhabited by groups belonging to other Ethiopian tribes, such as the Amhara, Oromo and Tigray, who are locally known as highlanders.

The ministry noted that violent clashes had broken out earlier between the Anyuak and Nuer over power-sharing and local resources such as land. But the more recent clashes had first erupted in December with an attack on a UN-plated vehicle in which eight government refugee workers were killed. The Anyuaks were held responsible and then subjected to reprisals, in which 60 of them were reportedly killed; but British officials say as many as 150 could have died.

Then, after a month of relative calm in Gambella, violence re-erupted in the form of a bloody attack on the gold mine, which is near Dima. According to humanitarian sources, highlanders and Anyuaks clashed again a day later, this time in Dima town. Yet more clashes subsequently broke out in Dima refugee camp on 6 February.

Gambella, a swampy, malaria-infested lowland area, is inhabited by about 228,000 people, of whom 90,000 are Nuer, with 62,000 Anyuak constituting the second-largest ethnic group. The region is rich in natural resources such as oil and gold.

The government says "confidence-building" measures are being introduced to restore calm, but that action will be carried out against the attackers. "The federal government will spare no effort to bring the perpetrators involved in these atrocities to justice," said the statement. "The suffering of innocent people must stop promptly." It added that a team from the ministry was in the region trying to restore order.

Theme (s): Conflict, Refugees/IDPs,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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