NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Witnesses tell The Associated Press that drone strikes in Ethiopia’s Oromia region killed several dozen civilians last week. The attacks in strongholds of the rebel Oromo Liberation Army came amid intensified fighting between federal forces and the outlawed group.
“I lost three of my brothers in a drone attack on Wednesday, Oct. 19,” said a witness who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety. “The attack happened around 12 p.m. in the Metta Welkite area. There was an earlier drone strike, and they went out to carry injured people to health centers. But they themselves were killed by a drone along with 20 others. My brothers were all students … (And) we buried their mutilated bodies.”
The deadliest drone strike occurred Sunday during a graduation ceremony in West Shewa’s Cobi County for members of the OLA, which Ethiopia has labeled a terrorist organization.
“Residents were told by the rebel group to attend the ceremony, so hundreds of people were there … (because) not attending the event was not an option,” an engineer who witnessed the aftermath of the attack said. “What I saw some 20 minutes after the attack was a carnage. Women, children, the elderly and some members of the rebel group were killed.”
Local officials declined to comment on the strikes, and federal officials have not provided details. But the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress, one of Ethiopia’s largest political parties, confirmed the attacks in a statement issued Tuesday.
“The irresponsible drone attack on Sunday killed 7- and 10-year-old children, mothers, the elderly and disabled people,” the statement from the party with a strong base in the Oromia region said. “The government … is busy using drones and fighter jets against civilians. And it is trying to hide these killings against ethnic Oromos from the public.”
The Oromo Liberation Army, which the Ethiopian government accuses of carrying out mass killings in recent months, alleged Tuesday that the government used drones and other airborne assets to “indiscriminately massacre civilians” in the Metta, Nunu Qumba, Wama Hagalo and Cobi areas of western and central Oromia over the past few days.
The OLA asserted a death toll in the hundreds and said schools and civilian gatherings were targeted.
The rebel group was once a military wing of an opposition party, the Oromo Liberation Front. Its members came back to Ethiopia in 2018 after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed invited exiled groups and political figures to return home.
However, the military wing soon detached itself from the party and began deadly confrontations with government forces while asserting it stood for the safety and self-determination of the Oromo people, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group.
Local reports suggest the rebel group is widening its reach as government forces are engaged in another deadly conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.
The conflict in Oromia is separate from the Tigray one. But late last year, the OLA and Tigray forces announced an alliance with the aim of toppling the Ethiopian government. The government and Tigray representatives began peace talks this week.