Ethiopia says 78 killed in protests against treatment of activist

Government says investigations into 'senseless act' of last week's violence continue, warns death toll could rise.

    PM Abiy's spokeswoman Billene Seyoum said 409 people had been arrested over last week's unrest [Tiksa Negeri/Reuters]
    PM Abiy's spokeswoman Billene Seyoum said 409 people had been arrested over last week's unrest [Tiksa Negeri/Reuters]

    At least 78 people were killed in protests in Ethiopia last week against the treatment of a highly influential activist and media entrepreneur, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has said.

    Billene Seyoum told a news conference on Thursday that those killed had died in a "very senseless act of violence" in the Oromia and Harari regions, and in the eastern city of Dire Dawa.

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    Billene said 409 people had been arrested over the unrest, which erupted in the capital, Addis Ababa, and in Oromia on October 23 after Jawar Mohammed, a prominent activist and founder of the Oromia Media Network, accused security forces of trying to orchestrate an attack against him. Police denied his claim.

    She added that investigations were ongoing and both the death toll and number detained could rise.

    Abiy was meanwhile greeted with boos by at least 700 protesters during a visit to Ambo, a site of earlier violence located 100km (62 miles) west of Addis Ababa, three people who were present told Reuters News Agency by phone.

    As the prime minister entered a meeting with local politicians, supporters of Jawar gathered outside the town hall chanting "Down Abiy" and "We stand with Jawar, Jawar is our hero," the people present said.

    One said the chants were so strong that the prime minister left the meeting early and was airlifted out of Ambo in a helicopter amid tight security.

    Long-repressed tensions

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    Supporters of Jawar took to the streets last week to protest against his alleged treatment after he said police had surrounded his home in Addis Ababa and tried to withdraw his government security detail.

    Crowds of young men from his Oromo ethnic group quickly turned their anger against, Abiy, also an Oromo, saying that he had betrayed them by mistreating Jawar.

    Jawar's ability to organise street protests helped propel Abiy to power last year.

    Since his appointment in 2018, Abiy has implemented sweeping political reforms which have won him international praise but also lifted the lid on long-repressed tensions between the country's many ethnic groups. He won the Nobel peace prize this month "for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea", a longtime foe.

    In advance of elections planned for next year, Abiy must navigate a delicate line between increasing political freedoms and reigning in individuals building ethnic powerbases by demanding more access to land, power and resources for their groups.

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies