The killing of two local administrators coupled with long-running land disputes led to an outbreak of fighting between the Oromo and Somali peoples in the south and east, government spokesman Negeri Lencho said.
“We can say hundreds of the Oromo ethnicity were killed… and there were also deaths from the Somali side, we don’t know exactly how many,” Negeri told a press conference on Monday.
The fighting that started along the border between the regional states belonging to the two ethnic groups has been quelled by police and soldiers, Negeri said.
Ethiopia is divided into ethnically-based federal regions and the Oromo and Somali people have for years argued over who controls arable land along their shared border.
A 2004 referendum decided the issue, but clashes have persisted with officials from both sides trading accusations that local armed forces are involved. In April, the presidents of the two regions signed an agreement to settle the unrest.
Negeri said two officials from the Oromia region were arrested by Somali regional forces and killed on September 11, provoking violent protests by the Oromos, the country’s largest ethnic group.
Oromos have accused the Somali region’s “Liyu” or special police of being involved in the incidents. The force was set up in 2007 to fight rebels in the Somali region.
An April report from Human Rights Watch alleged the Liyu police killed at least 21 people in 2016 in a Somali village after a police officer was injured in a dispute.
Negeri said a national task force has been set up to address the needs of the displaced — which Oromo president Lemma Megersa last week put at 50,000 people — and mediation efforts were underway with community elders.
The United States last week condemned the violence, and urged Ethiopian authorities to investigate.
Negeri confirmed to reporters that the government would open a probe into the bloodshed and prosecute any officials found to have played a role in the fighting.
“The system doesn’t allow any of the administrators of any of the regions to kill our citizens and also to displace our citizens,” he said.
Oromia was the sight of nearly a year of anti-government protests that started in late 2015 and spread into neighboring regions of Ethiopia. They only ended when parliament declared a nationwide state of emergency in October 2016 that was repealed last month.
Somali region was largely spared the protests, but is bearing the brunt of a catastrophic drought that has forced 8.5 million Ethiopians to seek emergency food assistance.