A rights organization says at least 140 people in Ethiopia's Oromo state have been killed by security forces during anti-government protests, far beyond what the government has confirmed.
Human Rights Watch said Friday that Ethiopian sources killed at least 140 people and wounded many more in what the group says "may be the biggest crisis to hit Ethiopia since the 2005 election violence." The rights group's new estimate is nearly twice the death toll it estimated last month.
The government has only confirmed five deaths since the protests began in November.
Human Rights Watch spokesman Felix Horne said Friday that Ethiopian forces are treating demonstrators and opposition politicians "with an iron fist," closing off ways that the protesters can express their grievances nonviolently. He called the development "a dangerous trajectory that could put Ethiopia's long-term stability at risk."
The protesters have been demonstrating over plans by the government to develop farmland outside the capital, Addis Ababa, into a new business zone. The deaths are attributed to clashes with security forces.
The protesters say the government plan will lead to a loss of autonomy and marginalization for Oromo people living on the outskirts of the capital.
The government argues the plan to develop the farmland will bring new business and will benefit all groups.
Opposition groups say the protesters are mostly students and farmers of the Oromo ethnic group, while the government describes them as "extremist Oromo groups" and "armed gangs."
Oromos are Ethiopia's largest ethnic group, comprising about 40 percent of the country's population.