Relatives of people detained in Ethiopia’s Kilinto prison are desperately seeking news of their loved ones after the high-security penitentiary caught fire Saturday.
Mohammed Seid, public and media relations director at the Government Communications Affairs Office, told VOA's Horn of Africa service that 23 prisoners had died in the blaze.
The prison houses high-profile political prisoners detained amid a wave of deadly anti-government protests, including the former spokesman of the opposition Semayawi (Blue) party, Yonatan Tesfaye, and leaders of the Oromo Federalist Congress party (OFC), deputy chairman Bekele Gerba and deputy secretary-general Dejene Tafa. All three men were arrested in December.
Aselefech Mulatu, Tafa’s wife, told VOA Amharic she didn’t know about the fire until she arrived for regular visitation time.
“We heard gunshots and the police came and stopped us saying we can’t pass because there’s been fire,” she said. “We retreated to the back and some people who went ahead of us said they could hear screams.”
She said that only ambulances and fire trucks were allowed through and family members were not permitted to visit Sunday.
Tafa is a former member of the Ethiopian parliament and a lawyer who represented protesters arrested in Ambo in the Oromia region of central Ethiopia in 2014, when protests first began over a disputed development plan to expand the capital city.
Since November, more than 500 people have been killed in the unrest and thousands have been arrested, according to Human Rights Watch.
It took nine fire trucks from multiple fire stations to contain the blaze Saturday, Negatu Mamo, communication officer at the Addis Ababa Fire & Emergency Prevention Authority, told VOA Amharic.
Three firefighters suffered smoke inhalation, he said.
“All the cell doors were opened so we can save lives. Security forces from Maekel and Addis Ababa were deployed to assist us. We didn’t have difficulties to do our jobs,” he said.
Mamo said the cause of the fire is under investigation.
When Bekele Gerba’s daughter, Bontu Bekele, arrived, she could see smoke billowing out of prison and heard gunshots. She said the fire didn’t die out until the afternoon.
The family went to Tirunesh Beijing General Hospital in Addis Ababa because they noticed that ambulances were headed there, she said.
“We have been searching since yesterday and all night. We went to many hospitals and then in the morning we went to Maekelawi prison, Kaliti prison and three other zones, and we were told that they weren’t there,” she told VOA Amharic.
Authorities told them they must wait three days for additional information, she said.
All of the detainees at Kilinto prison are men awaiting trial and the prison is overcrowded, said former detainee Befekadu Hailu, part of a group known as the Zone 9 bloggers who were acquitted last year of charges of inciting violence under the Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law.
“In one room, there are 130 people, but more than 30 people sleep on the ground and they wait until prisoners leave to sleep on the beds. Therefore, there are about 3,000 prisoners overall. The numbers may vary,” he told VOA.