At least six people have been killed in southern Ethiopia this week in unrest related to a bid to establish a new federal region, officials and a rights body said Tuesday.
The violence in the Wolaita zone -- which one official said left as many as 16 dead -- marks the latest bout of ethnic unrest since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of last year's Nobel Peace Prize, took office in 2018.
Protests kicked off Sunday in Wolaita after police began detaining senior politicians from the Wolaita ethnic group who have been campaigning to create their own region, a move permitted under Ethiopia's constitution.
"Security forces in Wolaita Zone appear to have used excessive force in confronting protesters, killing at least six people on August 10, 2020," the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), a government body, said in a statement Tuesday.
However a local government official told AFP that soldiers and federal police officers opened fire on protesters in at least three locations on Sunday and Monday.
"Seven people were killed in Boditi city, including a young boy I saw being hit before my own eyes. Eight people were killed in the Wolaita zone capital, Sodo, and one person was killed in the Damot Gale rural locality," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to discuss the security forces' operations.
"They were all killed by the security forces," he added.
Aaron Maasho, a spokesman for the EHRC, called on security forces to "exercise maximum restraint" and said the fatalities should be investigated.
Witnesses said security appeared to have been restored in Wolaita on Tuesday though tensions remained high.
Request to hold referendum
Wolaita is situated around 300 kilometres southwest of the capital Addis Ababa.
It currently falls under Ethiopia's diverse Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples' region (SNNP), one of nine regions and two administrative states created under the country's federal system which was designed to provide widespread ethnic self-rule.
However the Wolaita and more than 10 other ethnic groups in the south have long complained of marginalisation and pushed to form their own regions.
Those bids for regional autonomy gained fresh momentum after Abiy took office in April 2018 and, at least initially, pushed to liberalise Ethiopia's democratic space.
The Sidama people, also in SNNP, overwhelmingly backed the creation of a new region in a referendum last November.
The Wolaita have requested to hold a referendum of their own, but no date has been set.
It was unclear what exactly prompted the detention of the Wolaita politicians over the weekend.
Alemayehu Bawdi, a regional security official, told state media on Tuesday that they were "doing illegal activities in coordination with various forces".
The EHRC said 178 people had been detained, including 28 senior Wolaita officials.