NAIROBI – Ethiopian police and soldiers are dying on a “daily” basis as the country grapples with insurgencies in Oromia and elsewhere, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said Thursday.
Abiy in a parliamentary address repeated a vow to destroy the Oromo Liberation Army, a rebel group his government blames for two recent massacres targeting members of the Amhara ethnic group.
“As a government, the fact we are not able to prevent the acts they committed, we feel quite sad,” Abiy said. “Daily police officers die, security forces die” while fighting the Oromo rebels, he said.
In a rare admission of government losses, Abiy also said that “hundreds” of district officials have been killed in attacks.
The increase in violence in Oromia comes as the 20-month-long conflict with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front appears to be reducing. Last month Abiy revealed a committee has been set up to negotiate with the TPLF, but if the talks fail he suggested his government is ready to renew military efforts.
“The unity and the interests of our country, if it becomes difficult to secure it peacefully, we will pay sacrifices with our lives,” Abiy told lawmakers. “Outside of that, we believe there is hope. Our door will remain open for peace.”
In Oromia, the latest killings occurred on Monday, resulting in the deaths of an unknown number of civilians in the unstable West Wellega area. It followed a separate attack in the region last month that witnesses said killed hundreds.
The Oromo Liberation Army, or OLA, an outlawed group that the government refers to as Shene, denies carrying out the killings.
In response to the violence, regional and federal forces have stepped up their offensive against the OLA. Abiy said counterinsurgency efforts have been “95%” successful in saving civilian lives and compared the recent ethnic-based killings to gun violence in the United States.
“The security forces serve the country at a high cost, so the parliament should recognize their efforts,” Abiy said, describing the mass killings as “inhumane acts” perpetrated by “destructive, evil forces.”
On Wednesday Ethiopia’s parliament set up a special body to investigate the killings in Oromia, where regional government forces have also been accused of human rights abuses.
Human Rights Watch in a statement this week said a “culture of impunity” has “emboldened unaccountable security forces” that it says are responsible for a spate of extrajudicial killings in Oromia.
The killings are putting pressure on Abiy’s government to do more to protect civilians as waves of ethnic unrest persist in Africa’s second-most populous country with a population of 115 million people. Ethiopia has more than 90 different ethnic groups, according to its census. The Oromo are the largest group with an estimated 34% of the population followed by the Amhara with 27%.
Violence between various ethnic groups has increased in recent years as a result of longstanding rivalries.