Ethiopia coup attempt leaves regional leader dead reports

General reported as being behind armed attempt to seize power in Amhara state

The chief of staff of Ethiopias army was shot dead in his own home by his bodyguard and a regional governor was killed when a general tried to seize control of a northern state in an attempted coup, the prime ministers office has said.

The Amhara state president, Ambachew Mekonnen, and his adviser were shot dead and the states attorney general was wounded in Amharas capital, Bahir Dar, on Saturday evening, according to a statement from the office of the prime minister, Abiy Ahmed.

In a separate attack on the same night, Ethiopias army chief of staff, Gen Seare Mekonnen, and another retired general were shot dead in Seares home in Addis Ababa by his bodyguard. The two attacks were linked, the statement said, without giving details.

Abiys office said the Amhara state security head, Genl Asamnew Tsige, was responsible for the foiled coup, without giving details of his whereabouts. Asamnew was released from prison last year, having been given an amnesty for a similar coup attempt, according to media reports.

Abiy took office just over a year ago and embarked on unprecedented reforms in Ethiopia, Africas second-most populous country and one of its fastest-growing economies.

But the premiers shakeup of the military and intelligence services has earned him powerful enemies, while his government is struggling to rein in powerful figures in Ethiopias myriad ethnic groups fighting the federal government and each other for greater influence and resources.

The shooting in Bahir Dar occurred when the state president – an ally of Abiy was holding a meeting to decide how to put a stop to the open recruitment of ethnic Amhara militias by Asamnew, one Addis-based official told Reuters.

Asamnew had advised the Amhara people to arm themselves in preparation for fighting other groups, in a video spread on Facebook a week earlier and seen by a Reuters reporter.

Abiy wore military fatigues to announce the attempted coup on state television on Saturday evening. Residents of Bahir Dar, about 500km (311 miles) north-west of Addis, said there was at least four hours of gunfire on Saturday evening and some roads had been closed off.

The situation in the Amhara region is currently under full control by the federal government in collaboration with the regional government, Abiy said in the statement on Sunday.

The US embassy tweeted it had heard reports of gunfire in Addis Ababa on Saturday night, and some residents told Reuters they heard six shots in a suburb near the countrys Bole International Airport around 9.30pm local time. The capital was quieter than usual on Sunday, with fewer cars or pedestrians on the streets.

Earlier, Brig Gen Tefera Mamo, the head of special forces in Amhara, told state television that most of the people who attempted the coup have been arrested, although there are a few still at large. He did not give details about Asamnew.

Since coming to power, Abiy has released political prisoners, removed bans on political parties and prosecuted officials accused of gross human rights abuses, but his government is battling ethnic bloodshed once held in check by the states iron grip.

Now some of Ethiopias ethnic groups are disputing the boundaries of the countrys nine federal states, or arguing that they too should have regional governments, claims that threaten the dominance of other groups.

Amhara is home to Ethiopias second largest ethnic group of the same name and their native tongue, Amharic, is also the countrys official language. The anti-government protests that lasted three years and eventually forced the former prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn to resign in 2018 had begun in the neighbouring state of Oromia but quickly spread to Amhara.

Demonstrators were angered by grievances over land rights, political and economic marginalisation issues that Abiy is racing to address.

He (Abiy) seems to be dismantling the EPRDF (ruling coalition) and is entertaining thoughts of altering the architecture of federalism, but he hasnt given any clear direction hes heading in, said Matt Bryden, the head of regional thinktank Sahan Research. That uncertainty is creating a lot of competition and driving a lot of the friction and violence.

Abiy had also replaced many senior security officials when he came to power, Bryden noted, creating more uncertainty that allowed armed groups that would once have been quashed to flourish.

Abiys changes have not gone unchallenged. A year ago, he survived a grenade attack that killed two people at a rally. In October, hundreds of soldiers marched on his palace demanding pay rises. He defused the situation by doing push-ups with them but later said they were trying to derail reforms.

The internet was down across the country on Sunday, although there was no statement on this from the government. Authorities have cut off the internet several times previously for security and other reasons.

Ethiopia is due to hold parliamentary elections next year, although the electoral board warned earlier this month that they were behind schedule and that instability could cause a problem for polling. Several opposition groups have called for the elections to be held on time anyway.

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