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Ethiopia: Gambella situation still tense after killings

Briefing notes

Ethiopia: Gambella situation still tense after killings

16 December 2003

The situation in Ethiopia's Gambella region remained tense for the third day following last Saturday's killing of eight people, among them three employees of UNHCR's main implementing partner in Ethiopia - the government's department of Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA).

The group of eight, which included the three ARRA staff, two policemen and three construction workers, was killed in an ambush 18 km from the western Ethiopia town of Gambella on Saturday morning. The group was on their way to Odier-Bol, a new site being developed for the relocation of some 24,000 refugees from the nearby Fugnido refugee camp, when their vehicle came under machine-gun fire. Four people died on the spot while four others, including the ARRA staff were killed as they tried to escape into the bush. It is not clear who was behind the killings.

The incident on Saturday unleashed a spiral of violence which has left an estimated 30 people dead and many more homeless after scores of homes were torched in what appeared to be reprisal attacks. By yesterday (Monday), shops, schools, offices and banks in Gambella remained closed. Domestic flights between the capital, Addis Ababa and Gambella were cancelled. The local hospital was reported to be overstretched as scores of wounded people were brought in.

By yesterday, there was a heavy military presence deployed by the government to restore calm. Sporadic gunfire that could be heard on Sunday subsided following the military deployment. On Monday, senior government officials arrived in the town close to the Ethiopia-Sudan border to negotiate peace between the warring ethnic groups.

As a precautionary measure, UNHCR has withdrawn non-essential staff from Gambella and has, this morning, sent in two security staff to make a detailed assessment of the security situation in the area, including the nearby Fugnido camp. The situation in Fugnido has remained calm. We are now waiting for recommendations from the security team before taking other security measures.