Over 3,000 people have been arrested in more than a week of protests following the killing of popular singer and activist Hachalu Hundessa, a hero to many Oromo who saw him as the voice of their marginalisation.

People gather outside Downing Street in London, Britain to protest against the treatment of Ethiopia's ethnic Oromo group on July 3, 2020.
People gather outside Downing Street in London, Britain to protest against the treatment of Ethiopia's ethnic Oromo group on July 3, 2020. (Reuters)

At least 239 people have been killed and 3,500 arrested in Ethiopia in the biggest challenge yet to the country's Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister.

The casualties were the result of more than a week of unrest during anti-government protests triggered after a popular Omoro singer was shot dead last Monday. The protests soon spread through diasporas in other countries.

Officials have attributed the deaths to a combination of lethal force by security officers and inter-ethnic violence.

In the Oromia region, the toll includes 215 civilians, along with nine police officers and five militia members, regional police commissioner Mustafa Kedir told the ruling party-affiliated Walta TV on Wednesday.

Officials earlier said 10 people were killed in the capital, Addis Ababa, eight of them civilians.

Ethiopia’s internet service remains cut, making it difficult for rights monitor and others to track the scores of killings.

A feeling of betrayal

Singer and activist Hachalu Hundessa had been a rallying voice in anti-government protests that led to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed taking power in 2018. Abiy swiftly introduced political reforms that also opened the way for long-held ethnic and other grievances in Africa's second-most populous country.

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.

The military was deployed during the outrage that followed Hachalu's death.

Members of the Oromo community gathered to celebrate Hundessa's life in US's Minnesota while others mourned his death in Lebanon's capital Beirut.

In remarks last week while wearing a military uniform, Abiy said dissidents he recently extended an offer of peace had “taken up arms” in revolt against the government. He hinted there could be links between this unrest and the killing of the army chief last year as well as the grenade thrown at one of his own rallies in 2018.

The 3,500 arrests have included that of a well-known Oromo activist, Jawar Mohammed, and more than 30 supporters. It is not clear what charges they might face. The Oromo make up Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group but had never held the country’s top post until they helped bring Abiy to power.

Local reports have said that in some places ethnic Oromo have attacked ethnic Amhara and in Shashamane town, some people were going home to home checking identity cards and targeting Amhara residents.

But Abiy denied all allegations on the killings.

Abiy connects protests to Nile dam

He has said that Hachalu's killing and the violence that ensued were part of a plot to sow unrest in the country.

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 on Tuesday during a question-and-answer session with lawmakers, without giving evidence to support the claim.

Businesses have now begun opening slowly in Oromia after the violence in which several hundred homes in Ethiopia were burned or damaged.

READ MORE: Police block mourners from Ethiopian singer Hachalu Hundessa's funeral

Source: TRTWorld and agencies