ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – Violent protests of disputed elections spread Friday from the capital to other parts of Ethiopia, leaving four people dead, and the prime minister vowed to prosecute opposition officials after a week of bloody clashes, state media reported.
Police have killed at least 40 people since the confrontations began Tuesday in the capital, following largely peaceful protests Monday, medical officials said. The medical workers asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. Government officials put the number of dead this week at 24 civilians and seven police officers.
Protests erupted Friday in Dessie, Gondar, Bahar Dar, Arba Minch, Awassa, Dire Dawa – towns that are mainly pro-opposition north and south of the capital, according to Western diplomats, hotel owners and tour operators.
Four people were killed and 11 were wounded in Bahar Dar, Ethiopia’s second main city, state TV reported, although it was not immediately possible to verify the figures. Scattered gunfire and rioting was also reported in the capital, where doctors said at least two people were wounded.
The protesters were calling for an independent investigation into the killings in the capital and the release of political prisoners, according to witnesses.
The violence erupted over protests of May 15 parliamentary elections seen as a test of Prime Minister Zenawi Meles’ commitment to reform.
The vote gave Meles’ Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front control of nearly two-thirds of parliament. Opposition parties say the election and vote count were marred by fraud, intimidation and violence, and they accused the ruling party of rigging the elections.
Meles told the state media that the main opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy was responsible for the violence during the protests. Opposition officials would be charged in court, he said.
Protesters in Bahar Dar – a tourist site northwest of Addis Ababa – stopped a bus carrying 20 European tourists, including Spaniards, and tried to set it on fire using cans filled with gasoline. Police fired in the air to disperse the rioters and the bus drove off, said Dario Morello of Greenland Tours.
“The tourists were terrified. The situation is not good,” he said.
Diplomats from four European countries told The Associated Press on Friday they had reports from opposition members and other contacts of police rounding up suspected opposition supporters overnight.
An estimated 3,000 people had been detained, according to the diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they wanted to avoid jeopardizing relations with the government. However, each acknowledged that it was not possible to get an exact figure.
The government later said it had brought the violence under control, adding that Addis Ababa “has become totally peaceful.”
“On the other hand, similar but very limited violence trend happened Bahar Dar, Awassa, Gondar, Dessie and Dire Dawa,” the government said. “However, these were brought under control after a short while.”
Ambassadors from 21 countries that donate large sums of money to Ethiopia issued a statement expressing concern at the violence, calling for an urgent investigation and recommending all political detainees be either charged or released.
European Union chief election observer Ana Gomes sent an urgent appeal to EU governments and the Commission to act to end the “bloodbath.”
“Stop the killing of Ethiopians who dare to believe that democracy is possible in Ethiopia,” she said in the letter obtained by the AP.
“Most ironic is that Europe counts in Ethiopia, a country which depends on European aid, the largest recipient in Africa. Europe could definitely make the difference for democracy in Ethiopia,” Gomes said. “Instead, current European leaders are choosing to fail it. In doing so, they are not just failing Ethiopians. They are also failing Europe.”
Ethiopian special forces armed with heavy machine guns and sniper rifles patrolled Addis Ababa in Humvees and armored personnel carriers. Opposition supporters went from shop to shop, ordering merchants to close. Taxis were off the streets, and diplomats reported gunfire near the British and Vatican embassies. Protesters threw stones at buses near the Canadian Embassy in another part of the city, witnesses said.
Amid the protests, a New York-based media watchdog said authorities have threatened to arrest journalists and made statements that could endanger independent reporters. The government also appears to be using state media to smear foreign and independent media.