Addis Ababa (AFP) - The death toll from demonstrations and ethnic violence that erupted in Ethiopia last week following the murder of a popular singer from the Oromo ethnic group has risen to 239, according to a tally of police figures.
Pop star Hachalu Hundessa, a hero to many Oromo who saw him as the voice of their marginalisation, was shot dead by unknown attackers on Monday of last week, fuelling ethnic tensions threatening the country's democratic transition.
Protests broke out in the capital Addis Ababa, as well as the surrounding Oromia region which is the homeland of the country's largest ethnic group, who have long felt economically and politically sidelined in the diverse nation.
Officials have attributed the deaths to a combination of lethal force by security officers and inter-ethnic violence.
"Due to the unrest that occurred in the region, nine police officers, five militia members and 215 civilians have lost their lives," acting Oromia police commissioner Mustafa Kedir said on state television on Wednesday.
Police in Addis Ababa had previously reported 10 deaths in the capital.
The death toll is an increase from 166 fatalities reported at the weekend.
Mustafa also said there had been "extensive damage and looting" of government and private property.
"To control this unrest more than 3,500 suspects have been arrested. They were anti-peace elements who carried out attacks using the artist's death as a pretext to dismantle the constitutional system by force," he said.
"The Oromo population should be inclusive of other ethnic groups that live among it."
- Threat to planned democracy -
Hachalu's music was the soundtrack to anti-government protests that swept Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the country's first Oromo leader, to office in 2018.
Yet, as Ethiopia prepares for elections that will test its democratic transition under Abiy, many Oromo nationalists feel betrayed, arguing the prime minister has failed to champion their interests.
Free and fair elections planned for August have been postponed due to the coronavirus epidemic.
Simmering ethnic tensions in the country of over 100 million people have provided a major challenge to Abiy, whose efforts to loosen the reins of iron-fisted rule and open up the democratic space have led to increased jockeying for power and influence.
Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for ending a long running conflict with neighbouring Eritrea, has been accused of reverting to the tactics of his predecessors, with a wave of arrests of high profile opposition politicians during last week's protests.
Five senior members of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) were arrested, as were Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba from the Oromo Federalist Congress, as well as Eskinder Nega, a longtime government critic who has recently spoken out against government policies he argues favour Oromos.
Abiy has said that Hachalu's killing and the violence that ensued were part of a plot to sow unrest in Ethiopia.
He has linked the chaos to another current major headache he is facing: the filling of a mega-dam Ethiopia has built on the Blue Nile River which is facing objections from neighbours Egypt and Sudan.
"The desire of the breaking news is to make the Ethiopian government take its eye off the dam," Abiy said Tuesday during a question-and-answer session with lawmakers, without giving evidence to support the claim.