Ethiopian protests marred by ethnic violence

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Much of the fighting during protests in Ethiopia was ethnically tinged, eyewitnesses said, describing attacks by young Oromo men against people from other ethnic groups.

There were clashes in several cities in Oromiya, Ethiopia’s most populous province, underscoring the ethnic violence the UN says has internally displaced more than two million people.

After activist Jawar Mohammed said police circled his home in Addis Ababa and tried to withdraw his government security detail, his supporters took to the streets to protest his treatment.

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

Abiy won the Nobel peace prize for making peace with Ethiopia’s long-time foe Eritrea. Jawar spearheaded protests that propelled Abiy to power last year.

The young men lashed out against people from other ethnic groups, three eyewitnesses said.

“There was a hidden agenda to divert the protest into ethnic and religious conflict. There were attempts to burn churches and mosques,” Oromiya regional police commissioner Kefyalew Tefera told Reuters.

Tefera said on Friday 67 people were killed in two days of protests.

The majority of deaths came from fighting between civilians, he said. Police arrested 150 people in Oromiya in connection with the violence.

Sixty-eight people were arrested on suspicion of robbing and attempting to burn a mosque and an orthodox church in Adama in Oromiya, the city’s mayor said in an interview on a state-run broadcaster. He said suspects took advantage of peaceful protests to spark ethnic and religious conflict.

A 69-year-old man in Dodola, a town south of the capital in the Oromiya region, saw young men carrying sticks and metal rods in town where people from the Amharic ethnic group live, attacking and setting fire to houses.

He said the young men shouted “Qeerroo can do this….and that” in Amharic as they rampaged through his neighbourhood.

Supporters of Jawar call themselves “Qeerroo”, an Oromo term meaning “bachelor” adopted by politically active young men.

He said he heard them speaking Oromo.

The man said the group took to the streets on Wednesday when people were on their way to work.

“I saw seven corpses of peopl killed by the youths,” he said. “They were beaten to death with sticks, metal rods and machetes. I saved my life by hiding.”

Dodola hospital treated 56 people since violence began, 35 beaten with sticks and machetes, the rest with gunshot wounds, an official said.

Priest Firesebhat Getachew, head of an Orthodox church in Dodola, said eight people killed were buried at his church and 3 000 were sheltering in its compound.

“The attackers targeted Orthodox Christians,” he said adding victims were from the Oromo, Amhara, and Sidama ethnic groups. “The area is dominated by Muslims and they don’t want us and the church here.”

Violence along ethnic and religious lines is one of the biggest challenges yet for Abiy in Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous nation.

“This was the trigger,” Fisseha Tekle, Ethiopia researcher at Amnesty International, said of protests that turned violent. “There was something brewing under the surface. If government doesn’t tackle the basic problem among the communities, this may erupt again.”

In Alem Gena, a woman watched as young men speaking Oromo destroyed Amharic signs. “A young man s on the side of the road asked why. Then they attacked him with a stick,” she said.