NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Intense fighting between Ethiopian government forces and Oromo Liberation Army rebels in the country’s Oromia region has led to “several dozen” casualties in the past week, witnesses tell The Associated Press.
The fighting in Oromia, the largest of Ethiopia’s federal states, intensified as peace efforts were ending a larger, separate conflict between government and Tigray forces in northern Ethiopia.
A witness in the West Wollega area town of Bila said he saw bodies scattered on the ground following an alleged aerial attack on Nov. 2 by what he described as a “small flying plane” or possible drone.
“It was a market day, and students were leaving school,” the witness said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “I have lost count of the dead, but several dozen people were killed and injured.”
Witnesses in recent attacks in Oromia have blamed Ethiopian forces.
A priest in Bila said his church members buried 11 victims of what he described as a drone attack. He said hundreds of people were injured and sent to nearby hospitals.
The attack was followed by heavy fighting Sunday morning between Ethiopian forces and the rebels in the town of Nekemte in the East Wollega area, a witness said, adding that government forces retook control of the town in the afternoon.
The spokesman for the Oromo Liberation Army, Odaa Tarbii, tweeted that the rebel group’s fighters “rescued over 120 political prisoners” during an operation in Nekemte on Sunday. It claimed “several regime military installations” there were destroyed.
Ethiopian government spokesman Legesse Tulu didn’t respond to questions about the latest fighting. The government has accused the Oromo Liberation Army of carrying out mass killings in recent months.
The OLA was once a military wing of an opposition party, the Oromo Liberation Front. Its members returned to Ethiopia in 2018 after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed invited exiled groups and political figures to come back. However, the military wing detached from the party soon after and began deadly confrontations with government forces.
The OLA asserts that it stands for the security and self-determination of the Oromo people, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group. Ethiopia has labeled it a terrorist organization.
The conflict in Oromia is separate from the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, but the OLA and Tigray forces announced an alliance late last year aimed at toppling the Ethiopian government.
A “permanent cessation of hostilities” in the Tigray conflict was signed last week, and a second round of peace talks is underway this week in neighboring Kenya.