About 50 people were killed in weekend clashes in Ethiopia between police and anti-government demonstrators, opposition and diplomatic sources told AFP on Monday.
Protests swept the vast Oromia region and even reached the capital Addis Ababa, a rare event in a nation with a government considered among the most repressive in Africa.
“We have reports of between 48 to 50 protesters killed in Oromia. This death toll might be higher because there were a lot of wounded,” said Merera Gudina, leader of the opposition Oromo People’s Congress.
A diplomat confirmed that 49 people were killed across Oromia, a region straddling central-western Ethiopia, and in Amhara, in the north.
With at least 27 million people, Oromia is the most populous of the country’s federal states and has its own language, Oromo, distinct from Ethiopia’s official Amharic language.
Among the towns worst hit by the violence were Nekemte, a town in western Ethiopia where 15 people were killed, the diplomat said, while 27 died in Bahir Dar, the capital of the Amhara region.
Several thousand people had gathered in Bahir Dar on Sunday.
- ‘Brutal response’ -
“They appear to be low level, quite disorganised protests scattered all around...,” the diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“The brutal response of the government risks provoking more anger and making it worse.”
The authorities have since Friday blocked access to social media, the activists’ key channel for such rallying calls.
Unrest has increased in recent weeks in Amhara after the attempted arrest of local leaders who opposed a government move to merge two neighbouring districts.
Police were out in force on Saturday when about 500 people gathered in Addis Ababa’s main Meskel Square, shouting slogans such as “we want our freedom” and “free our political prisoners.”
Police swiftly moved in to break up the protest.
Between them the Oromo people, who inhabit the Oromia region, and the northern Amhara form the vast majority of the population.
They often claim they are discriminated against by the minority Tigreans, who dominate government and the security forces.
A previous wave of protests earlier this year was sparked by a since abandoned plan to expand the capital into outlying farmland, which was followed by a swift crackdown.
Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn had on Friday announced a ban on demonstrations which “threaten national unity” and called on police to use all means at their disposal to prevent them.