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Ethiopia Government: Up to 78 Killed in Ethnically-Motivated Violence

FILE - Jawar Mohammed, center, a member of the Oromo ethnic group who has been a public critic of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, addresses supporters outside his home in Addis Ababa, Oct. 24, 2019.

As many as 78 people have been killed in ethnically motivated clashes in the Oromia region, Harari region and the city of Dire Dawa in the past week, the Ethiopian government confirmed Thursday.

Meanwhile, the activist at the center of the dispute told VOA that the situation seems to have become calmer.

The violence began Oct. 23 after Oromo activist Jawar Mohammed alleged that security forces were plotting an attack against him. The announcement prompted protests by his supporters. Violent clashes occurred between protesters, security forces and members of other ethnic groups.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Billene Seyoum, spokeswoman for Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, described the events of the past week as having "claimed the lives of up to 78 civilians."

"We don't take any life for granted," she said. "So, I think it is also important that their lives also rest in peace."

"As a nation, these kinds of incidents have a tendency to rattle many people but at the same time, it is through these kinds of incidents, as well, that we evaluate how we respond and how we react to certain issues."

Billene said 409 people have been arrested in connection with the attacks.

Referring to the violence as "senseless acts," she called for dialogue rather than violence. Abiy has allowed greater freedoms for political speech and nonviolent protest in the country since coming to power in April 2018.

"So many spaces have opened up politically for people, for political parties to engage in a meaningful way," Billene said. The violence threatens this new openness, she said, adding that it is "working against Ethiopia and working against Ethiopians and all that people have labored for."

'Calm has returned'

Jawar told VOA by Skype on Saturday that the situation seemed to be quieting down.

"All reports we have indicate calm has returned to almost all cities," he said.

"Two days ago, almost all the opposition leaders, elders, clergymen and myself appealed for people to remain calm, to return home, to open roads and be patient. So people quickly responded by disbanding protesters, removing roadblocks and returning to their home to their normal lives. So, normal business activity has resumed as of yesterday," he said.

Eskinder Firew contributed to this report.