NAIROBI (Reuters) – Ethiopian federal authorities temporarily took over security in a region where at least 17 people were killed in clashes between security forces and activists seeking a new autonomous enclave for the Sidama community, a broadcaster reported on Tuesday.
On Saturday, a local district official told Reuters that at least 13 people were killed in a town near Hawassa city, 275 km (170 miles) from the capital Addis Ababa, while hospital authorities said on Friday that four protesters had died of gunshot wounds in the city itself.
State-affiliated Fana Broadcasting said that the Federal Security Council had decided to put security in the Hawassa city administration and some districts of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ (SNNP) region under a temporary federal security force-led command post.
It said the SNNP regional state had requested help from the federal government and the decision would take effect on Tuesday. Hawassa is the capital of the state but some Sidama – who make up the largest group in the region – want it as the capital of their own new entity.
The threat of large-scale violence in Hawassa was largely averted after a Sidama opposition party agreed last Thursday to delay declaring their own region and accept a government offer to hold a referendum in five months.
The Sidama threat to unilaterally declare a new region posed a direct challenge to the authority of the federal government in Addis Ababa that oversees nine regions in the Horn of Africa country of 105 million people.
Regional states in multi-ethnic Ethiopia are able to choose their official working language and enjoy limited powers over tax, education, health and land administration.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, appointed by the ruling coalition last year, has won praise for political reforms in what was once one of the continent’s most repressive nations.
But many Ethiopian activists are now using their greater freedoms to demand more rights, sometimes for their own ethnic groups. At least eight other groups beside the Sidama also want their own regions. The tensions sometimes spark violence.
(Reporting by George Obulutsa, Editing by William Maclean)