Former rebels in triumphant return to Ethiopia

Addis Ababa (AFP) –


Tens of thousands of people gathered in Addis Ababa on Saturday to welcome the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the latest once-banned rebel group to return following a string of Ethiopian political reforms.

Popular among the largest ethnic group, the Oromo, the OLF fell out with the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in 1992 and soon began launching armed attacks.

Last month, the OLF reached a deal on returning home following an accord with representatives of the government.

In July, the OLF and two other groups were formally removed from the list of "terrorist" organisations as part of a string of radical reforms pushed through by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed since taking office in April.

"We returned home as the incumbent force of change has opened the door for the peaceful conduct of reform," OLF chairman Dawud Ibsa told state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate upon his arrival in the Ethiopian capital.

He said the OLF now planned to engage in "peaceful struggle".

Fana also said that more than 1,300 OLF fighters had crossed into Ethiopia from Eritrea, where the government had offered them safe haven.

In power since 1991, the EPRDF coalition has hunted down OLF fighters and jailed its supporters, deepening resentment among Oromos whose anti-government protests fuelled the rise of Abiy's rise.

On Saturday, thousands of OLF flags flew in celebration above Meskel Square in the city centre as a huge, jubilant crowd awaited Dawud and his entourage.

"My father died for this flag," said 28-year-old Getachew Adunga, holding a yellow, green and red OLF banner.

Several in the crowd bore scars incurred during years of Oromo-led anti-government protests.

"I never thought this day would come," said 27-year-old Arfase Elias, showing the scar from a bullet that hit her left leg 12 years ago during a demonstration in the restive town of Ambo.

"For this flag, I've seen my brothers tortured, dying on the streets. I've seen the sacrifices they'd made for freedom," she said.

There was a heavy security presence at the rally after two days of sporadic clashes between Oromos and other residents of this ethnically-diverse city.

The OLF's return comes just days after militants from Ginbot 7, another armed opposition group that renounced violence after Abiy's rise, also came home.

An Oromo himself, Abiy has undertaken aggressive reforms in the five months he has been in power, releasing jailed dissidents and signing a peace deal to end 20 years of conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.