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Ethiopian town still tense after weekend clashes, says UNHCR

Ethiopian town still tense after weekend clashes, says UNHCR

Ethnic clashes in Gambella, western Ethiopia, have killed dozens of people, including three workers from the UN refugee agency's partner organisation. UNHCR is closely watching developments in the area, which hosts 85,000 Sudanese refugees.
16 December 2003
Western Ethiopia's Gambella region hosts 85,000 Sudanese refugees, including these at Bonga camp.

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia, Dec 16 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency is keeping a close watch on developments in western Ethiopia, home to 85,000 Sudanese refugees, after weekend violence killed dozens of people, including staff of its partner agency.

According to UNHCR, the situation is still tense in western Ethiopia's Gambella town after eight people - including three staff from the government's Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA) - were ambushed and killed on Saturday morning on their way to a refugee site under construction at Odier-Bol.

Saturday's attack ignited a wave of ethnic clashes that have left an estimated 30 people dead and many more homeless after their homes were torched in what appeared to be reprisal attacks. Sporadic gunfire was heard in the area on Sunday.

By Monday, the government had deployed troops to restore calm in Gambella. Senior government officials also arrived in the town, which is close to the Ethiopia-Sudan border, to negotiate peace between the warring ethnic groups.

Shops, schools, offices and banks in Gambella remained closed on Monday. Domestic flights between the town and the capital, Addis Ababa, were cancelled. The local hospital was reportedly overwhelmed by scores of wounded people.

UNHCR has pulled out its non-essential staff from Gambella as a precautionary measure. It has also sent two security staff to assess the situation in the area, including Fugnido camp 100 km away, which was reported to be calm. The agency will take further measures pending recommendations from the security team.

The weekend's violence was not new to the Gambella region. Late last year, a spate of ethnic clashes involving the ethnic Anuaks, Nuers and Dinkas killed 107 Sudanese refugees in Fugnido camp.

Tensions in the camp were linked to ethnic and political conflicts among the host community in this remote corner of Ethiopia. The refugees' affiliations with various factions of the anti-Khartoum Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) were also said to be fuelling the dispute at the time.

To quell tensions in Fugnido and its vicinity, UNHCR proposed relocating some 24,000 refugees to the new site at Odier-Bol, 74 km from Gambella. The refugee agency, through its partner ARRA, recently began work to prepare the site for the eventual move.

Ethiopia's Gambella region hosts a total of 85,000 Sudanese refugees in five camps and settlements.