Fighting between Ethiopia’s military and a local ethnic militia in the northwestern Amhara region has intensified in recent weeks, pushing the government to block the internet and declare a state of emergency and leading Israel to evacuate more than 200 Ethiopian Jews and Israelis.
The clashes follow monthslong tensions over Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s proposal to dismantle special regional forces nationwide and integrate them into the army — a move Amhara nationalists said would undermine security in their region.
The ethnic militia, known as Fano, had been allied with Mr. Abiy in his two-year effort to crush rebel fighters in the neighboring Tigray region, but it is now battling the military in an effort to preserve Amhara’s regional forces.
Less than a year after the Tigray war ended, the fresh fighting threatens to plunge the country into another conflict, analysts say, and could undermine stability in a region already dealing with a war in Sudan that has sent refugees fleeing into Ethiopia.
The latest rift, they say, also undercuts Mr. Abiy’s efforts to centralize power in the federal government and rein in ethnic-based political groups vying for dominance in Africa’s second-most-populous nation.
By Friday, federal authorities said the army had reclaimed control of the cities and towns it had lost and promised to resume government services in the Amhara region. But officials and observers remained concerned that Fano militants would launch new offensives, particularly from rural areas where they have large support.
Residents in several cities across the region said businesses remained shut and many families were still unable to find food even as they marked the holy fasting days of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.
“We were victims of Covid-19, and then the war in Tigray and now this conflict has followed,” Kidane Hailu, a tuk-tuk driver in Lalibela, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its rock-hewn churches, said in a phone interview. “I am tired.”
The United States and several other nations said in a joint statement on Friday that they were concerned about the violence and urged parties to address the crisis “in a peaceful manner.”
The roots of the latest fight go back to April, when the government announced it would disband regional forces. Ethiopia has 12 federated regions, each of which has its own forces, regional leaders and councils.
But Mr. Abiy’s plan was met with resistance in the Amhara region, where local populations protested, accusing him of wanting to extend his dominance in the region and leave them exposed to even more attacks — accusations he denies.
Amharas, the country’s second-largest ethnic group, have also been unnerved by their omission from the talks that brokered peace in Tigray. They say that deal didn’t take into account the disputed lands their fighters seized during the war.
Rights groups accused both the Amhara regional forces and the Fano militia of committing widespread abuses during the Tigray war. (Tigrayan rebels have also been accused of carrying out human rights violations.)
Hone Mandefro, from the Amhara Association of America, a U.S.-based advocacy group, said many Amharas feel, “No one is listening to us,” adding, “The status quo is unbearable.”
In response to the April protests, authorities launched a sweeping crackdown that resulted in the arrests of hundreds of activists, journalists and local leaders.
Federal security forces also began clashing with Fano militias, with the violence reaching its most intense this month when authorities accused the militias of trying to overthrow the federal government.
The latest violence enveloped major towns and cities, including Bahir Dar, the regional capital, and Gondar, a major commercial city close to Sudan’s border. The militias also took over the airport in Lalibela, according to a British government travel advisory. Fighting also flared in Debre Birhan city, where residents reported incessant mortars and artillery shelling early this week.
While there hasn’t been an official tally of casualties, residents in several towns reported more than a dozen deaths collectively. In Shewa Robit town, one resident who spoke on the condition of anonymity for safety reasons said he saw two bodies lying on the street and had attended the funeral of five other people killed in the clashes.
Temesgen Tiruneh, the director general of the national intelligence service, who is also overseeing the administration of the state of emergency, said on a state broadcast that the Fano militia freed prisoners, looted government buildings and destroyed documents in the towns they captured.
“When we spoke to some of the people, we could hear the shooting from their windows,” Lior Haiat, a spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in an interview.
The latest crisis adds to the multitude of economic, social and political problems facing Ethiopia. Violence has continued to tear through the Oromia and Gambella regions, forcing many more people from their homes. Millions continue to face food insecurity too, even as the World Food Program this week resumed distributing food following a monthslong pause because of theft and corruption.
To de-escalate the situation, analysts said it was prudent for the government to seek dialogue with aggrieved parties.
“Ethiopia is the region’s pivotal state, borders six countries and has historically been an anchor of security,” said Murithi Mutiga, the Africa program director at the International Crisis Group.
While the latest fighting is in “the early days and could be contained,” he said, “the consequences for the region will be serious if it evolves into a slow-burning insurgency that could draw in neighbors.”
Patrick Kingsley contributed reporting from Jerusalem. An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.