ADDIS ABABA: At least 23 people were killed in a weekend of violence targeting minorities in the ethnic Oromo heartland near Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, police said, a blow to new reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s efforts at reconciliation.
The violence escalated on Saturday, the day of a rally marking the return to Ethiopia of leaders of the exiled Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which had waged a four-decade insurgency for self-determination for Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group.
Abiy, himself the first Oromo leader in the ethnically diverse country’s modern history, has pursued a reconciliation strategy since taking power in April, steering the state away from a hardline security policy in place for decades.
In the latest unrest, local residents said shops were looted and people attacked by mobs of Oromo youth who stormed through streets targeting businesses and homes of ethnic minorities on Saturday after two days of sporadic attacks in the Oromiya region’s Burayu district northwest of Addis Ababa.
“Mobs of ethnic Oromo youth then marched here in Ashwa Meda and attacked our homes and looted businesses chanting ‘leave our land’,” said Hassan Ibrahim, a trader in an ethnically diverse part of the district told Reuters.
“By night time, there were several dead bodies along roads.”
Another resident said some of the violence was carried out by people returning from Saturday’s rally in support of the returning OLF leaders. Reuters could not immediately confirm this. The OLF did not immediately comment on the unrest.
Alemayehu Ejigu, head of Oromiya region’s police commission, said 23 people were killed in the latest violence and more than 70 people had been arrested. He denied accusations that police were slow to respond.
“They do not represent anyone – they had no reason other than theft,” he said of those behind the violence. “Anyone has the constitutional right to reside in Oromiya or anywhere.”
Ethiopia’s Oromo, who make up about a third of the population, have long complained of being marginalized during decades of authoritarian rule by governments led by politicians from other smaller ethnic groups. In recent years the Oromo have been angered by what they see as encroachment on their land.
Abiy’s predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn resigned in February in the wake of violent anti-government protests that had swept the Oromo heartland for two years.
Since taking power, Abiy has lifted a state of emergency, freed political prisoners and removed leaders of banned groups including the OLF from a blacklist, paving the way for their return to the country.