ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Ethiopia's parliament passed legislation on Thursday aimed at curbing gun ownership after a surge in regional ethnic violence blamed on a proliferation of small arms in private hands.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government said last April that it had seized 21 machine guns, more than 33,000 handguns, 275 rifles and 300,000 bullets in different parts of the Horn of Africa country over the previous year.
In October security forces confiscated a further 2,221 handguns and 71 Kalashnikov assault rifles in Gonder in the Amhara region, one of the areas particularly affected by ethnic strife, domestic media said. The rifles had been smuggled into the country in oil trucks from Sudan, they said.
The spread of small arms has been partly blamed for hundreds of killings in various ethnic conflicts over the past two years that have displaced more than 2.7 million people.
"There is a significant number of guns in our society since the previous government and the law will help us to formalise ownership," lawmaker Tesfaye Daba told parliament during the passage of the bill.
Abiy, who came to power in 2018, has implemented sweeping liberal reforms which have won him international praise but also lifted the lid on long-repressed tensions between the country's many ethnic groups.
The new law provides for each region to stipulate a legal age for gun ownership, Tesfaye said, while limiting the number of firearms an individual can own to one. Violations could bring up to three years in prison, according to the new legislation.
It will also ban private trade in weaponry and allow only allowing certain government institutions to import guns.
Those found to have involved themselves in arms trafficking would face prison terms of eight to 20 years.
More Ethiopians have resorted to arming themselves due to the volatile political situation and a "perception of weakening law enforcement", according to William Davidson, an analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group think tank.
"The proliferation of illegal arms risks fuelling further turmoil," he said.
With the iron grip of the past administration loosened, the federal government has struggled to assert its authority and enforce laws throughout the sprawling country, analysts say.
(Reporting by Dawit Endeshaw; Writing by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Mark Heinrich)