Often violent protests in which rights groups say hundreds of people have been killed by security forces have flared again in Ethiopia, with a US citizen among the latest deaths.
Protests reignited in the Oromia region – the main focus of a wave of anti-government demonstrations that began in November – in recent days after at least 55 people were killed in a stampede over the weekend, sparked by police firing tear gas and warning shots at a huge crowd of protesters at a religious festival.
Fifty-five is the official death toll given by the government, though opposition activists and rights groups say they believe more than 100 people died as they fled security forces, falling into ditches that dotted the area. Ethiopian radio said excavators had to be used to remove some of the bodies.
The demonstrations started among the Oromo, Ethiopia’s biggest ethnic group, and later spread to the Amhara, the second most populous group. Though they initially began over land rights they later broadened into calls for more political, economic and cultural rights.
Both groups say that a multi-ethnic ruling coalition and the security forces are dominated by the Tigray ethnic group, which makes up about six percent of the population.
The government, though, blames rebel groups and foreign-based dissidents for stoking the violence.
Staff at the California-based UC Davis university confirmed the identity of the US citizen as Sharon Gray, a postdoctoral researcher of biology, who had been in the Horn of Africa nation to attend a meeting.
The US embassy said she was killed on Tuesday when stones were hurled at her vehicle on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, where residents said crowds have attacked other vehicles since the stampede.
The embassy did not give further details or a precise location for the incident.
Foreign firms attacked
News of Gray’s death came as foreign-owned factories and equipment were damaged in the protests. Demonstrators in Oromia say farmland has been seized to build foreign factories and housing blocks.
On Tuesday, crowds damaged a factory run by Turkish textile firm Saygin Dima and the BMET Energy cable plant, which also has Turkish investors, officials from firms in the area said. Both plants are in the Oromia area.
A third of the Saygin Dima plant in Sebeta, 35 km (20 miles) southwest of Addis Ababa, was destroyed by fire, General Manager Fatih Mehmet Yangin said.
“A large crowd attacked the factory,” he said, adding three vehicles were also destroyed.
Yangin said a flower farm nearby was also attacked. The Oromia Regional Administration said vehicles and some machinery at a plant owned by Nigeria’s Dangote Cement were vandalised.
Oromia has been a focus for industrial development that has fuelled Ethiopia’s economic growth, but locals say they receive little compensation when land is taken by the government.
The death toll from unrest and clashes between police and demonstrators over the past year or more runs into several hundred, according to opposition and rights group estimates. The US-based Human Rights Watch says at least 500 people have been killed by security forces.
The government says such figures are inflated.
The attacks will cast a shadow over Ethiopia’s ambition to draw in more investment to industrialise a nation where most people rely on subsistence farming, and have been struggling with a severe drought in the past two years or so.
The government has been building new infrastructure, including an electrified railway connecting the capital of the landlocked nation with a port in neighbouring Djibouti, which was inaugurated on Wednesday.
At least seven foreign-owned flower farms in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, another area where protests have flared, were damaged in political violence at the start of September.
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