By Abdi Latif Dahir | for Quartz Africa,
After almost a year of anti-government protests, Ethiopia on Tuesday (Oct. 11) admitted that the death toll from police crackdowns and deadly stampedes could exceed more than 500 people. The admission came a few days after the government declared a country-wide six-month state of emergency, and blamed external forces for trying to break up the nation of over 100 million people.
Hailemariam Desalegn, the country’s prime minister, said that the death toll in Oromia region had been at least 170, while another 120 died in Amhara since the demonstrations began. But “when you add it up it could be more than 500,” he said.
Activists and opposition groups have disputed these numbers in the past, arguing that more people died when security officers dispersed demonstrations.
The continued protests and the recent emergency is a tipping point for one of the fastest rising economies in Africa. The Oromo and Amhara communities, who together make up over 61% of the country’s population, have been protesting against land grabs and human rights violations.
Desalegn was speaking at a press conference in Addis Ababa alongside the German chancellor Angela Merkel, who signaled her support for the protestors. Merkel said her country was already “working in Oromia to de-escalate the situation there by offering mediation between groups.” Merkel also said her government would help train the police officers so that they can better deal with demonstrations.
— BBC Africa (@BBCAfrica) October 11, 2016
Despite the unprecedented admission, the Ethiopian prime minister warned against what he called “violent extremist armed” groups, adding that his government would deal with them “in a proportionate manner.”
Here’s what you need to know about Ethiopia’s state of emergency: pic.twitter.com/ug7PXJUtCq
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) October 11, 2016
Ethiopia’s information minister Getachew Reda had earlier in the week blamed groups in Eritrea and Egypt for contributing to the unrest. Egypt’s foreign ministry, however, had denied an early October media report stating that it was supporting the Oromo protests and later affirmed that it was not intervening in the country’s internal affairs.
Ethiopian troops also on Tuesday withdrew from a military base in the El-Ali village in the central region of Hiiraan. The village was later overrun by terrorist group al-Shabaab. The Ethiopian soldiers are in Somalia both as part of a 22,000-strong African Union forces and because of a bilateral defense agreement with the Somali government.
Ethiopia is yet to comment on the withdrawal, but analysts say it might be connected to the domestic unrest. The withdrawal came as a surprise to some Somali government officials, according to media reports.
Spoke to a Somali military cmdr who is very angry with fall of El-Ali, accuses the Ethiopian troops of "surrendering" the town to Al-Shabab.
— Harun Maruf (@HarunMaruf) October 11, 2016