Human rights groups say more than 500 people have been killed in protests in the Oromia region, Ethiopia’s largest and most populous region, since last year, when anger over a development plan for the capital turned into broader antigovernment demonstrations over politics and human rights abuses.
The government says the death toll is inflated.
“A state of emergency has been declared because the situation posed a threat against the people of the country,” the prime minister said on state-run television.
“Vital infrastructure, businesses, health and education centers, as well as government offices and courts have been destroyed,” he said.
He also repeated promises of political changes and plans for dialogue with the opposition.
The violence in Oromia, which surrounds the capital, Addis Ababa, and to a lesser extent in Amhara Province, has cast a shadow over a nation where a state-led industrial drive has created one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies.
But the government also faces rising international criticism and popular opposition to its authoritarian approach to development.
The unrest has included attacks on businesses, many of them foreign-owned, including farms growing flowers for export.
Attorney General Getachew Ambaye said the decree would permit the authorities to stop and search suspects and detain them without court authorization, and to carry out house searches.
It also prohibits the “preparation, distribution and exhibition of material that could incite chaos,” he said in an official announcement.
The measures do not include curfews, but the attorney general said the command post set up to oversee the state of emergency would determine whether to impose curfews “should the need arise.”
Mulatu Gemechu, the deputy chairman of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress, said the unrest could worsen if security forces were to be granted more powers and expand their presence in Oromia.
“These are peaceful protesters who have been demanding that soldiers are pulled out,” he said. “This could intensify anger.”
Last Sunday, scores of people were killed in a stampede that began when the police used tear gas and shot in the air to disperse antigovernment protesters at a religious festival in the town of Bishoftu.
An American researcher was killed on Tuesday when stone-throwers attacked her car near Addis Ababa.
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