By Dawit Endeshaw
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Four protesters died of gunshot wounds suffered in clashes between Ethiopian security forces and activists seeking a new autonomous region for their Sidama ethnic group based in the southern city of Hawassa, hospital authorities said on Friday.
The threat of large-scale violence in Hawassa was largely averted after a Sidama opposition party agreed on Thursday to delay declaring their own region and accept a government offer to hold a referendum in five months.
Not all Sidama people accepted the delay. Most shops and factories including the city's industrial park stayed closed in protest with some activists still in the streets, although the situation was quieter on Friday, residents told Reuters.
Hawassa Referral Hospital said it had admitted 18 injured civilians since Wednesday, four of whom subsequently died of bullet wounds, one of whom was shot in the head, according to its general manager Zinaw Serniso.
Some of the injured had fractured bones after being hit with security forces' batons while and others had been shot, he said.
The Sidama threat to unilaterally declare a new region posed a direct challenge to the authority of the federal government in Addis Ababa that oversees nine regions in the Horn of Africa country of 105 million people.
Regional states in multi-ethnic Ethiopia are able to choose their official working language and enjoy limited powers over tax,
education, health and land administration.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, appointed by the ruling coalition last year, has been widely praised for political reforms in what was once one of the continent's most repressive nations.
UPPING THE ANTE
But many Ethiopian activists are now using their greater freedoms to demand more rights, sometimes for their own ethnic groups. At least eight other groups beside the Sidama also want their own regions. The tensions sometimes spark violence.
"The decision by top Sidama administrators to accept a belated referendum meant the zone didn't self-declare and so a major confrontation was avoided yesterday (Thursday)," said William Davison, an analyst from Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
"But that decision was not accepted by all of the youthful activists, who complained they were not consulted and were further angered when security forces prevented public meetings being held to discuss the situation."
Local police told Fana Broadcasting that relative peace prevailed in Hawassa on Friday.
"Efforts are under way to put under control the violence which started in Hawassa and later spread to the neighboring Sidama woredas (district)," regional Police Commissioner Tewodros Woldemichael told Fana.
Police had arrested people involved in violence that resulted in loss of life and properties, according to Fana.
Organized groups in towns outside Hawassa are ransacking houses, business and also robbing people, said Million Tumato, president of the opposition Sidama Liberation Movement.
He said earlier on Friday three civilians had been killed in Hawassa and 15 others in outlying areas. Reuters could not confirm the deaths or the circumstances surrounding them.
"At this moment, we cannot calm our people," he said.
(Additional reporting by Kumerra Gemechu in Hawassa, Writing by Katharine Houreld, Editing by Omar Mohammed and William Maclean)