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Ethiopian soldiers killed two dozen civilians in house-to-house searches, residents say

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Ethiopian soldiers killed about two dozen civilians earlier this week in the Amhara region during house-to-house searches after being attacked by militiamen who have been battling federal forces for more than a month, six local residents said.

Spokespeople for the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF), the federal government and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed did not respond to Reuters' requests for comment on Friday.

The victims in the town of Majete included children and the elderly and none was involved in the militia, the residents told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

One of the residents said he saw the soldiers kill his brother, while the others said they heard gunshots as the searches were going on and were told by their neighbours afterward how the killings were carried out.

Reuters was not able to independently verify the residents' descriptions of events.

The government has not publicly commented on allegations its forces have committed abuses since the conflict in Amhara broke out in late July. It stated during a previous conflict in the neighbouring Tigray region that ENDF troops respected human rights.

The Majete residents said in telephone interviews that fighters from the Fano militia attacked an ENDF position in town early on Sunday and that fighting between the two sides lasted for a few hours. They said that soldiers began conducting the searches after the clashes died down.

The residents, including two priests at churches where many of the victims were buried, said that 29 or 30 people had been killed.

Three of them said that three of the victims had been killed by shelling and that another three were believed to have been killed by civilians from a rival ethnic community who had come to Majete to support the military.

Enat, an opposition party in Ethiopia, said in a statement on Tuesday that soldiers had "mercilessly" killed 29 civilians in house-to-house searches in Majete on Sunday.

One resident interviewed by Reuters said he saw his 62-year-old brother killed after eight or nine soldiers wearing ENDF uniforms burst into their family compound.

"When my brother heard people talking outside, he thought it was our neighbours. He had nothing in his hand. He was near the gate and after they broke the gate, they shot him in the back," the resident said.

BLOOD ALL OVER

Another resident said soldiers killed his brother, who was 29 or 30 years old, at the gate to his family house.

"His wife came running to us. My house is probably 15 metres from his. She came and said they shot him," he said. "His blood was all over the place and we couldn't make a sound. We were silently crying."

According to two of the residents, soldiers summoned Majete residents the next day to attend a meeting with a senior officer. One of them said he attended.

"He was saying they couldn't find those who attacked them," the resident said. "He said 'if they fire a single bullet again, we will eliminate you'."

The fighting in Amhara was prompted by complaints among many in the region that federal authorities were trying to undermine the region's security - a charge the government denies.

The United Nations said last month that at least 183 people had been killed in the Amhara conflict to date, calling on all parties to stop killings and other human rights abuses.

Many reported incidents have been difficult to confirm because of internet outages across Amhara since the early days of the conflict.

The fighting erupted nine months after a peace deal ended a two-year civil war in the neighbouring Tigray region. The United Nations said all sides in that conflict committed violations that may amount to war crimes.

Fano fighters, who had fought alongside the Ethiopian military in the Tigray war before relations soured, seized major towns at the start of the current conflict before being pushed back by federal troops. Clashes have continued in more remote areas.

(Reporting by Nairobi Newsroom; Editing by Alex Richardson)