Ethiopia's restive Amhara 'calm' after government claims militia retreat

AFP , Thursday 10 Aug 2023

Ethiopia's restive Amhara region was largely calm on Thursday, local residents said, after the federal government announced its forces had driven back militia fighters following days of fierce clashes.

An unidentified armed militia fighter walks down a path as villagers flee with their belongings in t
An unidentified armed militia fighter walks down a path as villagers flee with their belongings in the other direction, near the village of Chenna Teklehaymanot, in the Amhara region of northern Ethiopia Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. AP

 

The government said Wednesday it had imposed curfews in six major cities hit by the unrest in the northern region, including the capital Bahir Dar and the holy city of Lalibela, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The State of Emergency General Directorate announced the move after declaring that the armed forces had "freed" the cities from local fighters it described as bandits.

There has been no official casualty toll, but hospital doctors in two of the affected cities told AFP on Wednesday that scores of civilians caught up in the violence had been killed or injured.

"The ENDF (Ethiopian National Defence Force) has regained ground in many places and controls the major cities," one aid worker based in the city of Dessie told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"However, scores of districts are still in the hands of Fano fighters in the South Wollo area (of which Dessie is the administrative capital)," he said. "Fano also controls much of the countryside in these areas."

Access to Amhara is restricted for journalists and it is not possible to independently verify the situation on the ground.

'Trapped in our homes'

"Today it's extremely quiet in the city, no one is moving," said one Bahir Dar resident who gave his name only as Tesfahun.

"ENDF is here roaming the city... there are door-to-door checks by the soldiers searching for possible suspects," he told AFP, adding that no gunfire had been heard.

Tesfahun said funerals had been held in Bahir Dar churches on Wednesday evening for civilians killed in the crossfire.

Residents of Lalibela and the region's second-biggest city Gondar gave similar accounts to AFP, saying Ethiopian troops were out on the streets after the militiamen known as Fano retreated.

"Last Wednesday people were living their ordinary lives when gunfire suddenly started, trapping us in our homes until today," added a 62-year-old Gondar resident who did not want to give his name.

"We're waiting inside our homes to see what happens next," he told AFP. saying that electricity supplies and transport services were not yet back to normal.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government last week declared a six-month state of emergency in Amhara after the fighting erupted, just nine months after the end of a devastating two-year war in the neighbouring Tigray region.

Although the Amhara militias fought alongside federal troops in the Tigray conflict, tensions surfaced earlier this year after the government announced it was dismantling regional forces across Ethiopia.

The move triggered protests by Amhara nationalists who said it would weaken their region's defences.

Rights body 'deeply concerned'

A mosaic of more than 80 ethno-linguistic communities, Ethiopia has long struggled to manage the diversity within its borders.

Ethiopian Airlines said it had resumed flights to Bahir Dar and Gondar after briefly suspending operations on Tuesday.

"People came out this morning to go to church but since then have largely stayed in their homes," said a 30-year-old shopkeeper in Lalibela.

"Banks, government institutions and restaurants have largely reopened their doors today. Shops have also started reopening," he told AFP on condition of anonymity, while adding that the roads were quiet with no sign of public transport resuming.

Under the curfews which are due to run until August 23, the movement of all vehicles, except emergency and security vehicles, is forbidden after 7:00 pm and public meetings or rallies have been banned.

A UN-backed rights body said in a statement it was "deeply concerned" about the security situation in Amhara, adding that previous states of emergency had been accompanied by rights abuses.

The International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia "calls on all sides to respect human rights and take steps to de-escalate the situation and prioritise processes for the peaceful resolution of differences".

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