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Ethiopia has launched a sweeping crackdown against an influential armed militia in its Amhara region that has led to the arrest of more than 4,000 people, including journalists, activists and a former general.

The militia group, known as the Fanoplayed a key role alongside the federal military in beating back November’s southward advance through the Amhara region by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which is fighting an 18-month-long civil war against the government and its allies.

Since then, the TPLF has retreated to its northern home region of Tigray, and the government has made attempts to disarm and demobilise the Fano militia, leading to a series of clashes with regional security forces.

An Amhara state security official announced the arrests last week, telling local media that 200 paramilitaries had been detained on suspicion of carrying out killings and engaging in other “illegal activities”.

In a statement, the federal government said it was “taking a wide range [of] measures in [the] Amhara region against groups involved in the illegal arms trade, looting and destroying property of individuals, killings, and creating conflict among the public”.

At least 19 journalists have been picked up in the mass arrests, according to the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC). On Saturday, Daniel Bekele, head of the EHRC, described the arrests of the journalists as a “new low”. “Ethiopia’s media law clearly prohibits pre-trial detention for any alleged offence committed through media, and all detained media personnel should be released,” he said.

Brig Gen Tefera Mamo, who commanded the Amhara region’s security forces until February, is among those detained. He was arrested shortly after giving a media interview criticising the ruling Prosperity party of prime minister Abiy Ahmed and its handling of the conflict with the TPLF.

Tefera appeared at the supreme court of the Amhara region on 20 May, accused of trying to dismantle the constitution. He was remanded in custody for 10 days.

The conflict in northern Ethiopia broke out in November 2020 and has heightened ethno-nationalist sentiment among the Amhara, Ethiopia’s second largest ethnic group. Many Amhara resent the government’s failure to prevent the TPLF occupation of parts of their region, which resulted in widespread damage to infrastructure.

All parties have been accused of atrocities, including Fano militia members, who moved to occupy the western part of the Tigray region when the conflict began. A recent report by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International accused Amhara forces of launching a systematic campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against the area’s Tigrayan population.

The Fano began as a loosely organised Amhara nationalist movement active in the 2016-2018 protests that led to the downfall of Ethiopia’s former TPLF-dominated government. It subsequently evolved into an armed militia group before the current conflict further swelled its ranks.

A Fano fighter from the historic town of Lalibela, who fought against the TPLF last year, told the Guardian that he and other militia members were currently in hiding because they feared arrest. “If we sleep in the town, the government will come and imprison us, so we spend the nights in the countryside,” he said.

“Many of my friends have already been imprisoned. The government is acting too much like a dictator because they want to control the Amhara region of 30 million people and make us poor.”

The federal government declared a humanitarian truce with the TPLF on 24 March and has ceased restrictions on aid to the Tigray region, where 5.2 million people need humanitarian assistance.

Reports that the government could be preparing to negotiate with the TPLF have provoked criticism by Amhara activists. A previous amnesty that saw the release of several TPLF figures in December was also deeply unpopular.

Zola Moges, a member of the Amhara regional parliament, said the government now sees the Fano militia as a threat to its authority, despite its reliance on the group when fighting the TPLF last year. “Now they are trying to control this informal armed group, but we don’t know what the consequences will be,” Zola said. “The government could succeed, or these militia could go underground. If that happens, it will be very difficult to fight them.”

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