Protests block Ethiopian route to ocean

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Protesters in Ethiopia’s north-eastern Afar region blocked the landlocked country’s main route to the sea to demonstrate against surging ethnic violence, organisers said.

The demonstrators started a five-day blockade of the highway to neighbouring Djibouti on Sunday, Mahi Bule, a member of an organising committee said.

Djibouti handles about 95% of all inbound trade for Ethiopia, a nation of 105 million and an economic power in East Africa.

Nearly three million people were displaced last year due to ethnic clashes. Critics of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed say his political reforms allowed dormant ethnic rivalries to resurface in Africa’s second-most populous nation.

The 42-year-old signed a peace deal with Eritrea, released political prisoners and moved to open up the state-controlled economy and overhaul the security services.

The sudden changes in a nation where political dissent has long been repressed inspired many ethnic groups to jockey for power and influence.

The latest deadly clashes between Afars and Issa Somalis, a minority in the area, broke out in December. Locals say dozens were killed.

Afar elders said the attacks were an attempt to break away areas inhabited by Issas away from the region. An Afar rebel group said attacks were supported by ethnic Somalis from Djibouti and Somalia.

Protesters are demonstrating against violence and a government order for local militias to pull out of disputed areas and be replaced by federal soldiers.

“The militias provided protection for civilians. We will protest until government reverses its decision,” Bule told Reuters.