NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Ethiopia’s federal government says it lost control of some districts and towns to militia fighters in the country’s Amhara region during the latest conflict emerging in Africa’s second most populous nation. Residents reported heavy gunfire and military aircraft overhead in some areas.
Ethiopia’s Cabinet declared a six-month state of emergency last week in the region as clashes and mass protests intensify over a plan to absorb regional forces into the military. The federal government has tried to centralize security powers after the end of a devastating two-year conflict in the country’s Tigray region, where Amhara regional forces and militia were key allies of the federal military.
Now, however, Amhara residents who were badly affected in that conflict accuse the federal government of trying to undermine their region. Authorities reject the accusation but see the regional fighters as a threat to constitutional order.
Ethiopia’s intelligence chief and the official overseeing the state of emergency, Temesgen Tiruneh, acknowledged Sunday that irregular Amhara forces had taken control of towns, released inmates from prisons and seized government institutions.
“These forces have the desire and goal of dismantling the regional government and then moving on the federal system,” Temesgen said.
Gunfire could be heard Monday morning in the Amhara towns of Gondar, Lalibela, Debre Birhan and the regional capital Bahir Dar, residents told The Associated Press, and main roads were blocked across the region.
“Debre Birhan is like a battlefield. There is an exchange of fire every minute,” said an official in the town, which is on a main road 135 kilometers (83 miles) from Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. Like others, he spoke on condition of anonymity, citing security concerns.
Residents said the informal Amhara militia known as Fano now controls Gondar and Lalibela, which are main tourist towns. A resident said gunfire could be heard Monday on the edge of Lalibela in the direction of the airport, ending days of calm.
Residents reported heavy fighting to the north of Gondar as federal forces attempted to retake it.
“We hear gunfire and can see smoke,” said a Gondar resident, who added that local officials were holed up in the main police station.
Military aircraft could be heard in the sky above Bahir Dar, where the water system has stopped working, one resident said. Another said tanks were moving in the city. “Things are getting worse and worse,” he said. “You can hear the sound of heavy shooting.”
State-run Ethiopian Airlines suspended flights to Lalibela, Gondar and Dessie.
In a call to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed concern about the deteriorating security situation.
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who is Ethiopian, said Sunday that the violence in the Amhara region was affecting humanitarian operations. He called for uninterrupted access and protection of health care facilities there.
The new state of emergency in the Amhara region, which must be approved by parliament, bans gatherings and gives authorities powers to detain suspects without a court order, impose curfews and conduct searches.
The federal government’s communication service said Saturday that several arrests were made “to control illegal armed activities.”
On Friday, federal police arrested Christian Tadele, a prominent lawmaker with the National Movement of Amhara opposition party and an outspoken government critic, at a residential compound for members of parliament in Addis Ababa, a party member said.
The Ethiopian Constitution says lawmakers cannot be arrested without parliament’s permission.