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At least 17 people were killed in Ethiopia during riots about Sidama's autonomy – local officials

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – At least 17 people were killed in clashes between security forces and Ethiopian activists seeking new autonomous regions for their Sidama ethnic group, according to local officials and the hospital.

Armed security officers patrolled the streets during clashes between Sidama youth and security officers after they declared their own territory in Hawassa, Ethiopia July 18, 2019. REUTERS / Domestic Torture

A local district official told Reuters on Saturday that at least 13 people were killed in a town near the town of Hawassa, 275 km from the capital Addis Ababa, while hospital authorities said on Friday that four protesters had been killed in gunshot wounds in the city own.

Driven by political reforms introduced by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed since he came to power in 2018, Sidama activists want to unilaterally declare a new state on Thursday.

While the threat of large-scale violence in Hawassa was largely avoided after the opposition party Sidama agreed to delay the declaration and accept the government's offer to hold a referendum within five months, not all Sidama people accepted the delay.

Ethiopia has nine ethnic-based states, which are overseen by the federal government in Addis Ababa but have autonomy over income and security forces.

Sidama's threat to declare a new territory poses a direct challenge to the federal government authorities in the Horn of Africa nation of 105 million people.

Confirming the 13 deaths of civilians in Wotera Rassa, which is located about 27 km from Hawassa, Shubale Buta, district head of the city of Malga, said soldiers were traveling to calm violence in a nearby town on Thursday.

"When they see people gathering near the road, they think they are there to create problems and that's how the killings happened," he told Reuters by telephone.

A Malga resident told Reuters late Friday that he had seen 14 bodies after the shooting.

"My house is close to the fields where people gather," he said. "I was told by people who were there that the military was coming to town (on Thursday) and randomly opened fire on people who gathered and discussed the referendum," he added, saying that he then went to the place where the shooting took place and counting dead bodies.

Shubale said the city was "relatively calm" on Saturday.

Sidama demanded a year's referendum on the issue of a new regional state – rights enshrined by the constitution – and said they would declare their own territory if the vote was not held within the stipulated time.

The federal system in the second most populous country in Africa was designed to allow larger ethnic groups for autonomy but smaller communities such as Sidama said they had been sidelined and some demanded their own areas.

Reporting by Dawit Endeshaw; wrote by Omar Mohammed; Editing by Kirsten Donovan

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