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Deadly Ethiopian unrest spills beyond capital

Political unrest erupted beyond Ethiopia's capital for the first time on Friday, raising concerns about the nation's stability.
/ Source: Reuters

Political unrest erupted beyond Ethiopia's capital for the first time on Friday in a development likely to deepen concern for the African giant's stability after days of bloody disturbances in Addis Ababa.

In the capital, a measure of calm returned despite sporadic gunfire in the morning as police scattered groups of protesters.

There was no repeat of the large street battles seen on the three previous days in which 42 people were killed.

A government statement acknowledged that protests had broken out in regions to the north, east and south of Addis Ababa but insisted that the troubles were now under control despite what it called incitement by the opposition.

Fears of a nation's instability
Ethiopia's worst unrest in months has fueled fears about the stability of the Horn of Africa's main power, prompting the European Union and African Union to urge restraint.

The latest bout of violence began in the capital, a stronghold of opposition groups that accuse Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of rigging his way back to power at polls in May.

"We are very scared because although it is a bit quiet now, the fighting is likely to start again. The police are provoking the public," said opposition supporter Endale Alemaghue.

"They say they want to arrest our leaders, but they have arrested all of them, so who do they want? They just want trouble," he told Reuters near the capital's Mercato market where violence first flared on Tuesday.

The government said it would continue to work with ordinary people to ensure the unrest was ended "once and for all."

"The violence incited by the opposition in Addis Ababa over the last three days has been brought under control," it said.

"Similar but very limited violent trends happened in Bahir Dar, Awasa, Gondar, Dessie, and Dire Dawa; these were brought under control after a short while," the statement said.

The towns listed are in regions inhabited by Amharas, ethnic Somalis, Oromos and a mix of groups in the so-called Southern Peoples Region.

Residents contacted by telephone also reported demonstrations in Arba Miinch in the same region.

Amharas make up about a fifth of the ethnically-diverse nation of 77 million, which is organized as a federation of ethnically defined regions and is sub-Saharan Africa's second most populous after Nigeria.

Tension with Eritrea
The disturbances have coincided with fresh tension with neighboring Eritrea, Ethiopia's foe in a 1998-2000 border war.

U.N. peacekeepers patrolling the disputed Ethiopia-Eritrea frontier warned that recent military moves by both countries had produced a crisis requiring urgent attention.

They said on Thursday they were concerned the moves in the past two weeks involving tanks, air defense missiles and troops could lead to a repeat of the conflict.

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana contacted Meles on Friday to express his concern about the situation, urging government and opposition to show restraint and settle their differences through dialogue.

An EU statement said Solana was worried about the authorities "excessive use of force" but he also urged the opposition to take up parliamentary seats it won in the polls.

Passenger bus attacked
Friday's clashes broke out when a crowd of youths gathered close to the AU headquarters tried to pull passengers from a public transport bus.

Police dispersed them by firing in the air, but sporadic gunfire could still be heard later in the morning.

Witnesses said protesters were targeting public transport because they saw the state-subsidized service as a symbol of authority.

There was no immediate word on casualties.

"The atmosphere in Ethiopia is not good. I am worried about myself and my family at home," said a government worker who gave his name as Tafara. "We think it could explode anytime."

Dozens killed in days of unrest
Doctors at several hospitals put the death toll since the start of the clashes at 42.

Information Minister Berhan on Friday said 24 people had been killed in three days of unrest.

Residents and human rights groups say the security crackdown has led to scores of arrests including leading figures from the main opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy.

Meles has repeatedly accused the CUD of inciting the bloodshed, warning he would not accept any threat to security.

The May election was widely regarded as a test of Meles's commitment to bringing democracy to a country still struggling to shake off the effects of centuries of feudalism followed by nearly 20 years of Marxism under dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.