(Nairobi) – Ethiopian security forces have killed dozens of protesters since November 12, 2015, in Oromia regional state, according to reports from the region. The security forces should stop using excessive lethal force against protesters.

Protesters in Oromia region, Ethiopia.

Protesters in Oromia region, Ethiopia, December 2015.

Police and military forces have fired on demonstrations, killing at least 75 protesters and wounding many others, according to activists. Government officials have acknowledged only five deaths and said that an undisclosed number of security force members have also been killed. On December 15, the government announced that protesters had a “direct connection with forces that have taken missions from foreign terrorist groups” and that Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Task Force will lead the response.

“The Ethiopian government’s response to the Oromia protests has resulted in scores dead and a rapidly rising risk of greater bloodshed,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government’s labelling of largely peaceful protesters as ‘terrorists’ and deploying military forces is a very dangerous escalation of this volatile situation.”

Protests by students began in Ginchi, a small town 80 kilometers southwest of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, when authorities sought to clear a forest for an investment project. Protests quickly spread throughout the Oromia region, home of Ethiopia’s estimated 35 million Oromo, the country’s largest ethnic group.

They evolved into larger demonstrations against the proposed expansion of the Addis Ababa municipal boundary, known as the “Addis Ababa Integrated Development Master Plan.” Approximately 2 million people live in the area of the proposed boundary expansion and many protesters fear the plan could displace Oromo farmers and residents living near the city.

Since mid-November, the protesting students have been joined by farmers and other residents. Human Rights Watch received credible reports that security forces shot dozens of protesters in Shewa and Wollega zones, west of Addis Ababa, in early December. Several people described seeing security forces in the town of Walliso, 100 kilometers southwest of Addis Ababa, shoot into crowds of protesters in December, leaving bodies lying in the street.

Numerous witnesses told Human Rights Watch that security forces beat and arrested protesters, often directly from their homes at night. Others described several locations as “very tense” with heavy military presence and “many, many arrests.” One student who took part in protests in West Shewa said, “I don’t know where any of my friends are. They have disappeared after the protest. Their families say they were taken by the police.”

Local residents in several areas told Human Rights Watch that protesters took over some local government buildings after government officials abandoned them. Protesters have also set up roadblocks to prevent the movement of military units into communities. Some foreign-owned commercial farms were looted and destroyed near Debre Zeit, 50 kilometers southeast of Addis Ababa, news media reported.

Human Rights Watch has not been able to corroborate the precise death toll and many of the details of individual incidents because of limited independent access and restricted communications with affected areas. There have also been unconfirmed reports of arrests of health workers, teachers, and others who have publicly shown support for the protest movement through photos and messages on social media.