Ethiopia says state of emergency will last six months

(This Feb. 17 story is refiled to reflect latest update)

FILE PHOTO: Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn gestures during a news conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, October 11, 2016. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri/File Photo

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - A state of emergency imposed in Ethiopia a day after the prime minister resigned will last for six months, the defense minister said on Saturday, as authorities sought to tamp down unrest in Africa’s second most populous nation.

Outbreaks of violence had continued in parts of the country and the government was banning protests, along with the preparation and dissemination of publications “that could incite and sow discord”, Defence Minister Siraj Fegessa told reporters.

“The government has previously made several efforts to curtail violence, but lives have continued to be lost, many have been displaced and economic infrastructure has been damaged,” he said.

Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced his surprise resignation in a televised speech on Thursday, the first time in modern Ethiopian history that a sitting prime minister had quit. He said he wanted to smooth the way for reforms.

A day later, the government imposed the state of emergency. Parliament - where the four-party ruling coalition controls all 547 seats - is expected to ratify it within two weeks.

Ethiopia is East Africa’s biggest and fastest-growing economy and a Western ally in the fight against Islamist militancy. But rights groups often criticize the government for clamping down on political opponents and the media.

The United States, a major aid donor, said it “strongly disagreed” with the decision to call for emergency rule.

“We recognize and share concerns expressed by the government about incidents of violence and loss of life, but firmly believe that the answer is greater freedom, not less,” the U.S. embassy in Addis Ababa said in statement.

“The declaration of a state of emergency undermines recent positive steps toward creating a more inclusive political space, including the release of thousands of prisoners,” it added.

Since January, Ethiopia has released more than 6,000 prisoners charged with a variety of offences, including taking part in mass protests and crimes against the state. It has also closed down a jail where activists alleged torture took place.

Many of the prisoners took part in anti-government protests in 2015 and 2016 in the country’s two most populous provinces, whose ethnic Oromo and Amharic communities complain they are under-represented in the country’s corridors of power.

The demonstrations began against a government plan to expand the capital Addis Ababa but then morphed into greater demands for civil rights.

The government previously imposed a state of emergency in October 2016, which was lifted in August 2017. During that time, curfews were in place, movement was restricted and about 29,000 people were detained.

Reporting by Aaron Maasho; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by John Stonestreet and Edmund Blair