At least three people have died in Ethiopia‘s southern city of Hawassa, hospital authorities said, amid a showdown between state security forces and local activists who want a separate region for their Sidama ethnic group.
Security forces carried out arrests as violence spread to districts outside the regional capital on Friday during a second day of protests, state media reported.
Hawassa Referral Hospital has received 12 injured civilians in the last two days, three of whom died, general manager Zinaw Serniso told Reuters News Agency.
A man who was shot in the head died on Thursday, while two more shot in the leg and abdomen died on their way to the hospital on Friday, said Serniso. Some of the wounded had fractured bones after being hit with batons and others had been shot, he added.
Sidama activists have accused the security forces of opening fire on protesters who set tyres alight and threw stones.
The Sidama, the largest ethnic group in the southern region, have been agitating for a semi-autonomous state, posing the latest political challenge to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who has been widely praised for political reforms in what was once one of the continent’s most repressive nations.
Expectations had been high that they would unilaterally declare their own region on Thursday, but the Sidama opposition party agreed to delay it and accept a government offer to hold a referendum in five months.
Ethiopia is already partitioned into nine semi-autonomous regions. The Constitution requires the government to organise a referendum for any ethnic group that wants to form a new entity within a year of them requesting it.
At least eight other ethnic groups besides the Sidama also want their own regions. The tensions sometimes lead to violence.
In Hawassa, not all Sidama people accepted the decision to delay the declaration. Some activists were still on the streets on Friday and most shops were still closed.
Local police told Fana Broadcasting that although relative peace prevailed in Hawassa and work was ongoing to restore peace in areas affected by the violence.
“Efforts are under way to put under control the violence which started in Hawassa and later spread to the neighbouring Sidama woredas [district],” regional state Police Commissioner Tewodros Woldemichael told Fana.
Police arrested individuals who took part in the violence, according to Fana.
Organised groups in towns outside Hawassa were ransacking houses, business and also robbing people, said Million Tumato, president of the opposition Sidama Liberation Movement.
“At this moment, we cannot calm our people,” he told Reuters.