Two killed as soldiers block mourners from Ethiopian singer's funeral

AFP , Thursday 2 Jul 2020

A live broadcast showed sparse numbers of people seated inside, one resident said large crowds had been turned away by police

File Photo: The late Ethiopian Oromo musician Haacaaluu Hundeessaa rides a horse in traditional costume during the 123rd anniversary celebration of the battle of Adwa where the Ethiopian forces defeated the invading Italian forces, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, March 2, 2019. Picture taken March 2, 2019. (REUTERS)

Two people were shot dead and seven others injured Thursday when soldiers opened fire on mourners seeking to attend the funeral of a popular Ethiopian singer, whose assassination sparked violence that has left more than 90 dead.

Hachalu Hundessa, a member of the Oromo ethnic group, Ethiopia's largest, was shot dead by unknown attackers in the capital Addis Ababa on Monday night, fuelling ethnic tensions threatening the country's democratic transition.

His music gave voice to Oromos' widespread sense of economic and political marginalisation during years of anti-government protests that swept Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to power in 2018.

The funeral, broadcast live on the Oromia Broadcasting Network, took place in Hachalu's hometown Ambo, west of the capital.

Despite the shockwave provoked by his death, only a few hundred people attended the short but emotional service in a football stadium.

A medical official in the town and an opposition member said that security forces had blocked roads leading to the funeral, and fired at crowds trying to make their way there.

"There has been an operation today related to the funeral. Nine people have been shot and two of them have died in our hospital," said the official at the Ambo referral hospital on condition of anonymity.

Filenbar Uma, a member of the opposition Oromo Liberation Front in Ambo, said he feared the death toll could be higher, describing security forces shooting as "people were kept from going" to the funeral.

'True freedom fighter'

Hachalu's casket was driven into the stadium in Ambo in a black car, accompanied by a brass band and men on horseback. He was later buried at an Orthodox church in the town.

"He was a true freedom fighter," Belay Aqenaw, the funeral's organiser, said in a speech. "He was a singer who raised our spirits."

Hachalu's death sparked protests in the capital and across the Oromia region -- the largest of the country's ethnic federal states -- which surrounds Addis Ababa.

A total of 81 deaths were recorded in Oromia, which regional officials attributed to deadly force used by police as well as inter-ethnic killings.

Prime Minister Abiy, winner of last year's Nobel Peace Prize, said in a statement Wednesday night that those behind Hachalu's death sought to derail his reform agenda and "kill Ethiopia".

"We have two choices as a people. To fall into the trap being set up by detractors or to deviate from their trap and stay on the course of reforms," Abiy said.

"Choosing the first is to willingly aid them in our demise."

Addis violence

The streets of Addis were relatively calm Thursday, though traffic was sparse and many shops remained closed.

Officials have not provided casualty figures for the capital, though the US embassy said in a security advisory late Wednesday that eight people had been killed there, including two Ethiopian Federal Police officers.

"Looting of shops and residence areas has worsened", the advisory said, noting that three banks had been robbed and four fuel service stations burned.

Outside St Paul's Hospital on Thursday, 24-year-old Fikadu Kebebe, an Oromo, waited to retrieve the body of his younger brother, Getu Kebebe, who he said had been shot by security forces Wednesday.

"He was protesting just to show his emotion over the death of Hachalu. When the police started shooting he tried to run away but he was hit twice in the back and he died on the spot," Fikadu told AFP.

"The government is targeting the Oromo people in every part of the city. Life in Ethiopia is getting more bitter day by day."

Though Abiy is the country's first Oromo leader, many Oromo nationalists say he's been a poor champion of the group's interests since coming to power.

Two prominent opposition Oromo politicians, Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba, appeared in court Thursday on charges of "participating in the death of a person", reported the state-affiliated FANA broadcasting corporate.

The two were arrested during a scuffle with security forces on Tuesday in which a police officer died.

Some Oromo demonstrators have said they will continue protesting until the men are released.

Separately three people "directly linked" to Hachalu's death appeared in court, said FANA.

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