At least 54 people were killed in a rebel attack in Ethiopia’s restive Oromia region at the weekend, according to Amnesty International.
Survivors of the massacre counted 54 bodies in a schoolyard in the village of Gawa Qanqa, which was targeted late on Sunday by suspected members of the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA). Most of the victims were women and children and elderly people, according to survivors who hid in nearby forests.
The incident is likely to ramp up pressure on the prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, winner of last year’s Nobel peace prize, to improve security in a country struggling with ethnic violence.
The violence occurred in an area of western Ethiopia known as Wollega and involved up to 60 armed and unarmed assailants, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said.
It said the assailants targeted members of the Amhara ethnic group, Ethiopia’s second largest, and victims “were dragged from their homes and taken to a school, where they were killed”.
The EHRC said: “Official figures state a death toll of 32 civilians, but preliminary evidence obtained by the EHRC indicate the number is very likely to exceed that tally.”
Earlier on Monday, the Oromia regional government said the perpetrators belonged to the OLA, a group blamed for kidnappings and bomb attacks in western and southern Ethiopia.
A survivor from Wollega said the violence erupted after security forces stationed in the area abruptly and inexplicably left, allowing OLA fighters to round up civilians.
“After collecting us, they opened fire on us, and then afterwards looted cattle and burned down houses,” said the survivor, who spoke on condition of anonymity for safety reasons. “I have counted more than 50 corpses, and I know there were others hit by bullets.”
The EHRC called on authorities to investigate why the military withdrew from the area. “These gruesome killings of civilians are unconscionable and flout basic principles of humanity,” said Daniel Bekele, the head of the commission. “No amount of grievance can justify such brutality, and perpetrators should be held to account.”
The OLA, believed to number in the low thousands, broke off from the Oromo Liberation Front, an opposition party that spent years in exile but was allowed to return to Ethiopia after Abiy took office in 2018.
Separate attacks on Amhara civilians have recently been reported in two other regions. Authorities last week barred the National Movement of Amhara (Nama), an opposition party, from staging demonstrations denouncing the killing of Amhara civilians.
Dessalegn Chanie, a senior member of Nama, said “up to 200 Amharas were ruthlessly murdered” in the attack on Sunday, though he acknowledged the precise toll was difficult to pin down.
“According to survivors from the area whom I talked to earlier today, they are not sure about the count of deaths because they just ran [into the forest],” he said.
Abiy said security forces had been deployed to the area and were “undertaking measures” to restore order.