About 50 people were shot dead by security forces in Ethiopia at the weekend in protests linked to an aborted government attempt to commandeer local land, opposition and diplomatic sources said.
Police fired tear gas and blocked roads to several towns in the vast Oromia region as demonstrations erupted after a call from a spontaneous social media movement.
“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. 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.
“They appear to be low level, quite disorganised protests scattered all around…,” the diplomat told the AFP news agency on condition of anonymity.
“The brutal response of the government risks provoking more anger and making it worse.”
Months of protests
Ethiopian authorities had imposed a blanket internet blockade over the weekend.
Oromia saw unrest for several months until early this year, sparked by plans to allocate farmland in the region surrounding the capital for development.
Authorities scrapped the land scheme in January, but protests have flared again over the continued detention of opposition demonstrators.
At the weekend, protesters chanted anti-government slogans and waved dissident flags. Some demanded the release of jailed opposition politicians.
The state-owned Ethiopian News Agency said “illegal protests” staged by “anti-peace forces” had been brought under control, but it did not mention casualties.
Oromia is the second region to be hit by unrest in the past few days. In Amhara region, at least two people were killed in the ancient city of Gonder in clashes over the status of a disputed territory.
Tensions have been rumbling for two decades over the status of Wolkayt district – a stretch of land that protesters from Amhara say was illegally incorporated into the neighbouring Tigray region to the north.