Tensions remain high among Sudanese refugees in western Ethiopia after weekend violence killed dozens of people, including three staff members from an Ethiopian government office, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said today.
Responding to the clashes that took place in Ethiopia's Gambella area, which hosts 85,000 refugees, UNHCR proposed relocating some 24,000 refugees to Odier-Bol, 74 kilometres away.
Officials on their way to the refugee site under construction at Odier-Bol were ambushed on Saturday in an attack that left eight dead, including the Ethiopians from the government's Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs.
The deaths ignited a wave of ethnic clashes that left an estimated 30 people dead, according to UNHCR. Many more were homeless after their shelters were torched in what appeared to be reprisal assaults. 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 Ethiopian-Sudanese border, to negotiate peace between the warring ethnic groups, the UN agency reported.
Shops, schools, offices and banks in Gambella remained closed on Monday, domestic flights between the town and the capital were cancelled and the local hospital was reportedly overwhelmed by scores of wounded people.
UNHCR said it 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 kilometres away, which was reported to be calm.
Late last year, a spate of clashes involving ethnic Anuaks, or Anyuaa, who straddle the Sudanese-Ethiopian border, on the one hand, and the Sudanese Nuers and Dinkas on the other, killed 107 Sudanese refugees in Fugnido camp.
According to a 2002 UN report, the factors causing conflict in Gambella include "the question of the majority population in the region and what language should be taught in school and a general feeling, or apprehension, among Anyuaa that they are being dominated by the pastoralist Nuers, who enter Anyuaa territory in search of (scarce) grazing land and water."