By Tesfa-Alem Tekle
April 18, 2016 (ADDIS ABABA) – Ethiopia said it prepares to launch military offensive against South Sudan’s armed Murle militia forces who this week massacred hundreds of its citizens across the border.
Ethiopian Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, on Monday in a televised statement on the Ethiopian TV vowed that his forces would take punitive military action following the killing of over 200 people.
He said the Ethiopian forces will follow the Murle armed men into their territories from where they came from in South Sudan and to rescue the over 100 kidnapped children.
Armed militants of South Sudan’s Murle tribe on Friday crossed the border into Ethiopia and raided 13 villages belonging to the Nuer and Anyuak ethnic groups of the Gambella Regional State bordering South Sudan in western part of Ethiopia.
According to government officials, the total number of the death toll from the attack has risen to 208 by Sunday from around 160 previously disclosed on Friday. At least 75 others were also wounded.
More over; the assailants have also kidnapped over 100 children and took them to South Sudan’s territory where they are holding them hostage for unknown demands.
While addressing the nation via the state television to pay his condolences to the bereaved families of the Nuer and Anyuak communities affected by the menace, the Ethiopian premier on Monday also confirmed that a military operation has been launched to rescue a total of 108 children kidnapped during the Friday’s raid.
Desalegn said the Ethiopian forces are on standby to take cross-border military action against the Murle armed men, whose home area is the newly created Buma state of former Jonglei state.
But he said the Ethiopian forces are only waiting for permissions from Juba government to carry out the cross-border military operation inside South Sudan’s soil, which will target Murle’s areas.
Desalegn further disclosed that talks are under way with President Salva Kiir’s government on ways to carry out joint military operations along with the South Sudanese army against the Murle group which terrorized communities in Ethiopia.
However, the Ethiopian Premier confirmed that the Murle gunmen were not affiliated to either South Sudan’s government or the armed opposition group of the SPLM-IO, led by Riek Machar, seeking cooperation from the South Sudan’s government on the planned military action.
The military action is expected to involve both air strikes and ground forces to dismantle the Murle hideouts and concentrations and to force them into surrendering the kidnapped children.
The military action, the Prime Minister said, will be punitive and he promised that the government will do its level best to protect the people of Gambella region.
He said the Ethiopian government in collaboration with South Sudanese authorities will make sure that such cross-border attacks won’t happen in future.
While deploring the Murle attackers as “primitive and destructive forces”, Desalegn expressed deep sorrow over the killing of the 208 civilians who most were women and children.
Following the attack, Ethiopian security forces have chased the attackers till they crossed to South Sudan territories and have killed 60 of the Murle fighters.
The Murle tribe from South Sudan’s Jonglei has previously been accused of lower-scale cross-border attacks mainly to steal cattle but the latest attacks are said to be larger in scale and barbaric acts.
The gunmen have also taken some 2,000 cattle during the latest attack from different Nuer villages from the unarmed civilians.
The African Union has condemned an attack carried out by armed gunmen from South Sudan in the Jakawa area of the Gambella region of Ethiopia last Friday, which left scores dead.
Ethiopian officials have said that more than 200 people were killed in the raid and around 80 have been taken to the hospital in Gambella for treatment for gunshot wounds.
AU CALLS FOR ACTION
The African Union (AU) has also released a statement condemning the massacre of the Ethiopian civilians in Jekou and Nyinenyang woredas (counties), expressing support to a military action to bring to justice the perpertrators and free the abducted children.
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Chairperson of the Commission of the AU, in a statement issued on Monday expressed condolences to the families of the victims and wished speedy recovery to the injured.
The African Union “looks forward to joint efforts by the Governments of South Sudan and Ethiopia to bring to justice those who committed this despicable act.”
The Murle armed you have been a source in insecurity in Jonglei, Upper Nile and some of Equatoria states as their youth are armed and occasionally carry out organized crimes internally and cross borders.
Gambella, a regional government in Ethiopia predominantly inhabited by the Nuer and Anyuak communities, currently shelters over 280,000 South Sudanese refugees, mainly from the Nuer ethnic group who fled from the conflict in South Sudan that erupted in December 2013.
The attacks were carried out only three days before South Sudan opposition leader, Riek Machar’s planned return to the capital Juba to re-assume position as first vice-president.
Machar was supposed to be flown from Gambela Airport to Juba on Monday, April 18, 2016 however his return was delayed by at least a day, and is expected to arrive Juba on Tuesday.
It is not clear if the delay is connected with the latest attacks by the gunmen from his country.