NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) -- Violent unrest is escalating in Ethiopia's Amhara region as federal security forces clash with a local ethnic militia, leading the deputy prime minister in an unusually outspoken statement to call the situation "increasingly grave."
Ethiopia's second most populous region has been gripped by instability since April, when federal authorities disarmed the Amhara regional force as part of the recovery from a devastating two-year conflict in the neighboring Tigray region. Authorities last year also tried to dismantle the Amhara militia known as Fano.
Both forces had fought alongside federal ones in the Tigray conflict, but now the federal government wants to centralize its security powers. Many Amhara, however, are deeply attached to their regional fighters and accuse the federal government of trying to undermine their region, which federal officials reject.
Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen on Wednesday called for dialogue to seek a peaceful resolution and described some of the concerns of the Amhara population as "understandable."
His comments came a day after the Fano fought with federal police at the airport in Lalibela, a key supply point, according to two witnesses and several residents. Flights to the popular tourist destination have been suspended, flight tracking data show.
Britain on Tuesday issued a travel warning describing the Lalibela airport as "taken over by Fano militias" and noted instability along the A2 highway that links the eastern part of the Amhara region with Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital.
Elsewhere in the Amhara region, residents said protesters blocked roads and Fano militia ambushed military units, while government officials fled several towns.
A witness said there was "heavy fighting" in Gondar, another popular tourist town, on Thursday. All spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for their safety.
In Kobo, the military used artillery against the Fano on Monday night and Tuesday morning, damaging homes, two residents said. Gunfire could be heard in Debre Tabor on Wednesday, according to a witness, who said the military used live ammunition to disperse stone-throwing youths on Tuesday.
"Most people here support the Fano. There is no government system at all anymore," said Tilahun Tarko, a Kobo resident. He said he was sitting in his neighbor's house on Tuesday when the building was hit by an artillery round.
"No one trusts the government in this area," said Tedros Abyou, a resident of Wereta, a regional crossroads, where protesters previously closed the road.
An aid agency assessment seen by The Associated Press said fighting also has occurred in rural areas of Amhara's West Gojjam and North Wollo zones, causing an unknown number of casualties.
The fighting is the latest blow to Ethiopia's recovery from the Tigray conflict, which also spilled into the Amhara region and caused billions of dollars of damage to infrastructure. A peace deal was signed in November.
One of the bloodiest incidents in the Amhara unrest took place earlier this year at a monastery in the East Gojjam zone. The military said it killed 200 members of an "extremist group" that it claimed was trying to overthrow the government, according to a statement issued by the national security and intelligence task force on June 3.