Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who survived a grenade attack at a rally in his honour last year, sat in the front row at the memorial and wiped tears from his eyes with a white handkerchief.
The coffins of army chief of staff Seare Mekonnen and a retired general, both shot dead on Saturday by Seare’s bodyguard in the national capital Addis Ababa, were wheeled into the hall, draped in Ethiopian flags.
Ethiopia has been left reeling after apparently co-ordinated attacks last week in northern Amhara state.
“The crime was not committed by foreign forces but by our own people, and this makes it very painful,” Patriarch Abune Mathias of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church said during the ceremony.
The crowd of more than 1,000 people was composed primarily of soldiers in military fatigues, while relatives of the dead and government officials wore mostly all black.
Seare, the slain army chief, will be buried in his home region of Tigray on Wednesday.
Wailing and crying
Mourners began wailing and crying out long before proceedings began. “They have sacrificed a lot for this country,” one woman shouted in Amharic. “We love them, but now we have lost them forever.”
The wailing grew louder when a screen showed Abiy, wearing all black and sitting next to Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde, sobbing and bowing his head in prayer.
Soldiers strained to hold back tears as speakers recounted the dead military leaders’ long careers and battlefield triumphs. Delivering a eulogy for Seare, a military commander described him as a fearsome fighter who “knew how to win.”
“He was very courageous and mentored many soldiers after him,” the general said.
“It would be one thing if he were killed in battle or because of some dispute. But what did he do to deserve this?” said deputy chief of staff General Birhanu Jula.
Roads in the capital were blocked for the ceremony and security was tight. Access to the internet appeared to be blocked across Ethiopia for the third straight day, users reported.
Reforms, as promised
Abiy took power 15 months ago and has won widespread international praise for kickstarting political and economic reforms. But his shake-up of the military and intelligence services has earned him powerful enemies at home.
His government is also struggling to contain discontent from Ethiopia’s myriad ethnic groups fighting the federal government and each other for greater influence and resources.
The foiled plot to seize control of the northern Amhara region and the assassinations in the national capital Addis Ababa underscored the threat of spiralling violence in Africa’s second-most populous nation.
In addition to the killing of the chief of staff in the capital, Amhara state president Ambachew Mekonnen and an adviser were killed in the region’s main city Bahir Dar.
The attacks were led by Amhara’s head of state security General Asamnew Tsige, who was shot on Monday near Bahir Dar, according to the prime minister’s office. He had served nearly a decade in jail for a previous coup plot, but was released as part of an amnesty last year.
The weekend killings came as Ethiopia prepares to hold parliamentary elections next year, although the electoral board warned this month that they were behind schedule and that instability could delay polling.
Ethiopia’s ruling coalition, itself a grouping of ethnically-based parties, is facing an unprecedented challenge from strident ethno-nationalist parties, global think-tank Crisis Group said in a briefing note on Tuesday.
Asamnew, who allegedly orchestrated the killings, had been appointed by state authorities as the regional security chief in an effort to claw back support from Amharas supporting of more his more hardline policies, including an expansion of Amhara’s borders, the group said.
“The June 22 killings confirm the dangers in handing security portfolios to hardliners like Asamnew who are ready to pander to extreme ethno-nationalists, from whichever of Ethiopia’s ethnicities,” the note read.