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28.06.2019 Ethiopia

Ethiopia on edge in ethnic heartland of accused coup leader

By Robbie Corey-Boulet
The funeral service for Ethiopia's army chief Seare Mekonnen and retired general Geza'e Abera.  By Michael TEWELDE (AFP/File)
JUN 28, 2019 ETHIOPIA
The funeral service for Ethiopia's army chief Seare Mekonnen and retired general Geza'e Abera. By Michael TEWELDE (AFP/File)

As gunmen assassinated top officials in Ethiopia's Amhara region during what the government has described as a coup attempt, alleged mastermind Asaminew Tsige holed up in a state-run guesthouse where he had been staying for more than a year.

Down on the ground floor, his fighters detained rattled employees, confiscating their cell phones and refusing to tell them what was happening, eyewitnesses told AFP on Friday.

"They said, 'Don't move, stay where you are,'" recalled guesthouse manager Moges Ayalew, who at first believed the gunmen were ordinary soldiers.

In addition to opening fire at the regional president's office, killing him and at least two other officials, Asaminew's supporters tried to storm the police headquarters and a regional media house during the violence that began last Saturday afternoon, residents of Bahir Dar said.

Several hours later, Ethiopia's army chief and a retired general were shot dead in a separate attack in the capital Addis Ababa that authorities say was linked to the "coup" plot.

All the while, Asaminew himself said nothing, according to those at the guesthouse, who claim they were oblivious to the chaos unfolding outside the property.

A police officer stationed at the guesthouse, who refused to give his name for safety reasons, said Asaminew's fighters wore uniforms he had never seen before, and that they pointed their weapons at a security guard but didn't shoot anyone.

Finally at around 10pm, Asaminew and a half dozen fighters drove off in three vehicles, the eyewitnesses said.

Two nights later, officials announced that Asaminew -- who had been serving as the regional security chief -- had been shot dead by security forces outside Bahir Dar, the Amhara regional capital.

The attacks Saturday amounted to a major challenge to the leadership and reformist agenda of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who came to power last year.

Analysts say many details about the violence, as well as Tsige's motivations, remain murky but it is clear Ethiopia is facing a major political crisis.

Democratic reforms pursued by the 42-year-old leader have unleashed ethnic violence and turmoil as different groups jockey for resources and power.

Ethnic divisions

In Bahir Dar, residents remained on edge Friday, expressing concern about the heightened security presence in the lakeside city even as local officials maintained that calm had been restored.

Members of Asaminew's Amhara ethnic group, the country's second largest, appeared divided.

Many condemned Asaminew's alleged actions, but others doubted the official narrative of what happened.

Pictures carried by local media showed thousands of flag-waving mourners turning out for his funeral, including armed troops in fatigues marching in procession.

Asaminew served nine years in prison after being accused of plotting a coup but he was released last year as part of an amnesty program, and subsequently appointed regional security chief.

"I think he was concerned for the interests of the Amhara people, but the way he tried to do things by force was not appropriate," said Tazebew Tassie, a civil servant and member of the Amhara Democratic Party.

"I think he was too militaristic, too aggressive."

Habtamu Ashenafi, a master's student at Bahir Dar University, said he saw Asaminew as a champion of the interests of Amhara ethno-nationalists, who accuse the federal government of trampling their rights and ignoring their legitimate claims to land in neighbouring regions.

"We all know that for a long time the Amhara people have been left behind, and Asaminew was trying to fix that," Ashenafi said, adding that he has downloaded many of Asaminew's public remarks on YouTube.

In a statement earlier this week, the International Crisis Group (ICG) said such concerns had fuelled the rise of the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA), an ethnocentric political outfit.

It has emerged as a challenger to the Amhara Democratic Party, one of the four alliance members in the national ruling party, the EPRDF.

Scores of NaMA members had been arrested in the aftermath of last weekend's violence, a party spokesman said Thursday, describing the arrests as "an identity-based attack."

A rise in "ethno-nationalist rhetoric" was also spurring violence that saw Ethiopia record more displaced people than any other country in 2018, the ICG think tank said.

Back at the guesthouse, Ayalew said Bahir Dar was still reeling.

"There are lots of soldiers around the city, so I don't think it's back to normal now," he said.

"But it will be, I hope."

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