Four killed as protests spread outside Ethiopia's capital

Political protests spread from the capital to other parts of Ethiopia on Friday, leaving four people dead and 11 wounded, state-run television reported, as the prime minister vowed to prosecute opposition officials after a week of bloody clashes between demonstrators and police.

Friday's casualties occurred in Bahar Dar, the second main city in Ethiopia, the television reported. It was not possible to immediately verify the figures. Scattered gunfire and rioting was also reported in the capital, where doctors said at least two people were wounded.

Police have killed at least 40 people since violent confrontations began Tuesday in the capital, following largely peaceful protests Monday, medical officials said. The medical workers asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation from government officials, who put the number of dead over the week at 24 civilians and seven police officers.

Protests erupted Friday in Dessie, Gondar, Bahar Dar, Arba Minch, Awassa, Dire Dawa _ towns that are mainly pro-opposition north and south of the capital, according to Western diplomats, hotel owners and tour operators.

The protesters were calling for an independent investigation into the killings in the capital and the release of political prisoners, according to witnesses.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told the state media that the main opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy was responsible for the damage and loss of live that occurred during the protests. Opposition officials would be charged in court, he said.

Protesters in Bahar Dar _ a tourist site northwest of Addis Ababa _ stopped a bus carrying 20 European tourists, including Spaniards, and tried to set it on fire using cans filled with petrol. Police fired in the air to disperse the rioters and the bus drove off, said Dario Morello of Greenland Tours.

"The tourists were terrified. The situation is not good," he said.

Diplomats from four European countries told The Associated Press on Friday they had reports from opposition members and other contacts of police rounding up suspected opposition supporters overnight.

An estimated 3,000 people had been detained, according to the diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they wanted to avoid jeopardizing relations with the government. However, they acknowledged that it was not possible to verify the number.

The government later released a statement saying it had brought the violence under control, adding that Addis Ababa "has become totally peaceful."

"On the other hand, similar but very limited violence trend happened Bahar Dar, Awassa, Gondar, Dessie and Dire Dawa," according to the statement. "However, these were brought under control after a short while."

Ambassadors from 21 countries that donate large sums of money to Ethiopia issued a statement expressing concern at the violence, calling for an urgent investigation and recommending all political detainees be either charged or released.

European Union chief election observer Ana Gomes sent an urgent appeal to EU governments and the Commission to act to end the "bloodbath."

"Stop the killing of Ethiopians who dare to believe that democracy is possible in Ethiopia," she said in the letter obtained by The Associated Press.

"Most ironic is that Europe counts in Ethiopia, a country which depends on European aid, the largest recipient in Africa. Europe could definitely make the difference for democracy in Ethiopia," Gomes said. "Instead, current European leaders are choosing to fail it. In doing so, they are not just failing Ethiopians. They are also failing Europe."

The May 15 election had been seen as a test of Meles' commitment to reform. Meles was appointed to British Prime Minister Tony Blair to his Commission for Africa to help draft a blueprint for ending poverty and building democracy. But at home his government has little tolerance for dissent and has been accused of severe human rights abuses.

Ethiopian special forces armed with heavy machine guns and sniper rifles patrolled Addis Ababa in Humvees and armored personnel carriers. Opposition supporters went from shop to shop, ordering merchants to shut down and go home. Taxis were off the streets, and diplomats reported gunfire near the British and Vatican embassies. Protesters threw stones at buses near the Canadian Embassy in a different part of the city, witnesses said.

Amid the protests, a New York-based media watchdog said authorities have threatened to arrest journalists and made statements that could endanger independent reporters in the capital. The government also appears to be using state media to smear foreign and independent media.

Civil society leaders have also been detained during a crackdown on organizations suspected of not being pro-government, AP reported. V.A.

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