NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — An airstrike on a crowded town square in Ethiopia’s restive Amhara region killed at least 26 people and wounded more than 55 others, a senior health official said Monday, days after authorities asserted that calm had been restored in the area.
Local militia members have been clashing with Ethiopia’s military over efforts to disband them, and last week the military retook key Amhara towns by force.
The airstrike hit the center of the Finote Selam community on Sunday, said the health official, who like other people spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. The official said 22 people died at the scene and several of the wounded had to undergo amputations.
Two residents said the airstrike targeted a truck carrying civilians who were returning from delivering food to fighters with the militia known as Fano. Their account could not be verified.
A federal government spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“We heard a heavy sound coming from the sky,” a local teacher said. “When it fell, lots of people were killed and injured.”
The state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission on Monday noted “credible reports of strikes and shelling” in Finote Selam and other Amhara towns “resulting in many civilian casualties.” It also said Amhara regional officials were the target of attacks, with some killed, “resulting in the temporary collapse of local state structure in many areas.”
Ethiopia’s Cabinet declared a state of emergency earlier this month in the Amhara region. The Fano militia had fought alongside Ethiopian military forces in a two-year conflict in the neighboring Tigray region, which ended with a peace deal last November.
Lawyers and witnesses say authorities are now carrying out mass arrests of hundreds, even thousands, of people in Ethiopia’s capital amid the Amhara unrest.
The emergency measures allow authorities to arrest suspects without a warrant, conduct searches and impose curfews. Under a previous state of emergency imposed during the Tigray conflict, tens of thousands of ethnic Tigrayans were rounded up across the country.
This time, “there has been widespread arrest of civilians who are of ethnic Amhara origin,” the rights commission said.
Two lawyers said the emergency measures also appear to be in effect in the capital, Addis Ababa, where suspects are being held at police stations, schools and other makeshift detention centers after being swept off the streets. The lawyers, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution.
One lawyer said he visited seven schools and police stations last week where “hundreds” of people were held. The other lawyer, citing police sources, said 3,000 people had been arrested in Addis Ababa.
A third lawyer said he encountered several young people last week at police stations and courts in Addis Ababa who had been arrested and accused of having links to the Fano militia.
One man, an ethnic Amhara, said he was picked up off the street last week by plainclothes police officers who overheard him discussing the recent unrest on the phone. He said he was held at a school with hundreds of others before being taken to a police station. He was released on Thursday without any charge.
Another man said his brother was arrested in Addis Ababa a day before the state of emergency was declared and is being detained at a school with several hundred others. Most of the detainees there are young boys, said the man, who has visited his brother twice.
The federal government said only 23 people have been arrested under the state of emergency in Addis Ababa. Those include Christian Tadele, an outspoken opposition lawmaker who should have immunity from arrest under Ethiopia’s Constitution as a member of parliament.
“(N)o suspect has been arrested apart from these 23 individuals and the information circulating that there are mass arrests is wrong,” the federal government’s communication service said Friday.
The rights commission has urged that the state of emergency be limited to one month and “to the specific place where the special danger is said to have occurred, rather than applying it throughout the entire country.”