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Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaks during a media conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, October 29, 2018.

POOL/Reuters

Dozens of people were killed in Ethiopia over the weekend, when three villages were assaulted by an armed rebel group, the government and human rights organizations said Monday, the latest in a spate of attacks that threaten the stability of Africa’s second-most populous nation.

The assailants late Sunday killed at least 54 people from the ethnic Amhara group in the Oromia region, Amnesty International said.

The attackers, who authorities said were from the Oromo Liberation Army, a group that broke off from a once-banned political party, attacked three villages in the West Welega Zone. They killed the victims after luring them to a school compound, then plundered what they could from the three villages and set everything else on fire.

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The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, an independent national rights group, said in a statement posted on Twitter that there were up to 60 assailants. The commission, which put the death toll at 32 but said the final number was likely to be higher, said the attack came a day after federal forces had pulled out from the area even though it was susceptible to attacks.

Sunday’s attack underscored how relations between Ethiopia’s ethnic groups are fraying even as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed tries to unite the country’s ethnically federated states.

As the country has opened up in recent years, ethnic grievances around resources, land, internal borders and political power have intensified. This is particularly true among the Oromo and Amhara, who together make up more than 60% of the country’s population of more than 108 million people.

Abiy, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, on Monday condemned the attacks, saying “Ethiopia’s enemies” were determined to either “rule or ruin the country.”

Simmering ethnic tensions and violence have dogged Abiy’s administration the past two years. Since he came to power in 2018, he has introduced a number of reforms, including freeing political prisoners, legalizing previously banned opposition groups, and making peace with neighbouring Eritrea, a long-time foe.

But the reforms and the country’s new openness have also unleashed a host of problems, parties and personalities that have directly challenged Abiy’s rule.

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