ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) -Dozens of people died in a dawn attack on Wednesday by unknown gunmen in Ethiopia’s western region of Benishangul-Gumuz, residents told Reuters, the latest deadly violence in the area.
Gashu Dugaz, a senior security official from the region, said authorities were aware of the attack and were verifying details of the identities of the attackers and the victims, but did not give further information.
The Horn of Africa country’s military has been fighting rebellious forces in the northern Tigray region for over six weeks in a conflict that has displaced close to 950,000 people.
Federal troops deployed in other regions of Africa’s second-most populous nation were deployed to fight in that conflict, raising fears of a security vacuum.
Even before the Tigray war erupted last month, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government had been grappling with rising insecurity in many parts of the country. Violence between groups fighting over land and other resources has forced many hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes since Abiy took office in 2018, according to United Nations estimates.
82 BODIES COUNTED IN FIELD
Belay Wajera, a farmer in the western town of Bulen, told Reuters he counted 82 dead bodies in a field near his home after Wednesday’s dawn attack. He and his family awoke to the sound of gunshots and ran out of their home as men shouted “catch them”, he said. His wife and five of his children were shot dead, he was shot in the buttocks while four other children escaped and are now missing, he told Reuters by phone late on Wednesday.
Another resident of the town, Hassen Yimama, said armed men stormed the area around 6 a.m. (0300 GMT). He told Reuters that he counted 20 bodies in a different location. He grabbed his own weapon but assailants shot him in the stomach.
A local medic said he and colleagues treated 38 injured people, most suffering from gunshot wounds. Patients told him of relatives who were killed with knives and told him that gunmen set houses on fire and shot at people trying to escape, he said.
“We weren’t prepared for this and we are out of medicine,” a nurse at the same facility told Reuters, adding that a five-year-old child died while being transferred to the clinic.
The attack came the day after the prime minister and the military’s chief of staff Birhanu Jula and other senior federal officials visited the region to urge calm after a number of deadly incidents between rival ethnic groups in recent months. The most recent previous attack in the area was on Nov. 14, when gunmen targeted a bus and killed 34 people.
“The desire by enemies to divide Ethiopia along ethnic and religious lines still exists. This desire will remain unfulfilled,” Abiy tweeted on Tuesday along with photos of his meetings that day in the town of Metekel, near where Wednesday’s attack occurred. He said residents voiced a wish for peace and that the sentiment “outweighs any divisive agenda”.
The prime minister’s spokeswoman did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Wednesday’s attack.
Reporting by Addis Ababa newsroom Writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Mark Heinrich