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Ethiopian Regional Leader said to Admit Role in Ethnic Killings

The president of a volatile Ethiopian regional state has been fired from his party leadership position after reportedly admitting involvement in a 2003 ethnic massacre. The leadership of the southern Gambella region is coming under increasing scrutiny for corruption and abusing the rule of law.

Two privately-owned Ethiopian newspapers are reporting Gambella Regional President Omod Obang Olum has been removed from his post as head of the ruling Gambella Peoples' Democratic Movement. The GPDM is affiliated with the country's ruling party, the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front.

It was not immediately clear whether Omod Obang would retain the post of regional president, but in Ethiopia's de-facto one-party system, party positions are considered more important than government titles.

Several other GPDM executive committee members were also reported to have lost their jobs.

The dismissals followed a week-long self-evaluation of the government's performance. Among the issues raised were corruption, the controversial practice of leasing huge tracts of land to foreign investors, and a December, 2003 massacre of more than 400 members of the minority ethnic Anuak community.

Sources contacted by VOA's Amharic language service in Gambella say the normally secret proceedings caused an uproar after the testimony was surreptitiously recorded and made public. Omod Obang reportedly can be heard on the recording admitting a role in the mass killings, and arguing that if he is to be held accountable, so should Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

A 2005 Human Rights Watch report accused Ethiopia's military of widespread murder, rape and torture of ethnic Anuak in Gambella in December, 2003. But a subsequent government investigation largely absolved the military of wrongdoing.

Coincidentally, Human Rights Watch is releasing another report about Gambella on Tuesday. That report criticizes the Ethiopian government policy of forced villagization, the resettling indigenous people from land that is being leased for commercial agriculture. Many of the estimated 70,000 people being relocated are Anuak pastoralists.

In a telephone interview, Human Rights Watch researcher Ben Rawlence said Omod Obang's apparent confession should prompt a reopening of the investigation into the 2003 massacre.

"Human Rights Watch investigated the events of 2003 and 2004 in Gambella and we called for an investigation of that at the time, so if he is now talking about his role, I would hope that that might provide an opportunity to investigate what happened back then and to hold some of those people to account," Rawlence said.

In an apparent coincidence, U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Donald Booth made what officials called a long-planned two-day visit last week to Gambella. An embassy press release said the ambassador spoke to Regional President Omod Obang to share views on regional development and commercial farming issues. The statement said Booth had also met representatives of the U.N. refugee agency.