By Aaron Maasho
GINCHI, Ethiopia (Reuters) - A government plan to allocate farmland near Ethiopia's capital for new investment has sparked a month of protests and some of the worst civil unrest for a decade, in a poor nation rapidly aiming to industrialise its agrarian economy.
A burned out police station and charred truck stood beside a road to the small town of Ginchi, 72 km (45 miles) from Addis Ababa. Shops and schools were shut.
An opposition politician says about 35 people have been killed in clashes with police. Residents refer to dozens of deaths. Earlier this week a government spokesman put the death toll at five.
Such public outpourings of anger are rare in a nation that rights groups say should give more space to political rivals. U.S. President Barack Obama made a similar call when he visited in July, even as he praised the nation's transformation.
The second most populous nation in Africa with 90 million people, Ethiopia has long been one of the poorest countries in the world per capita, but has made startling strides towards industrialisation, recording some of the continent's strongest economic growth rates for a decade.
A huge state-led programme to invest in new roads, railways and other sectors has helped push annual GDP growth above 10 percent.
But allocating land for new uses is a thorny issue in a country where the vast majority of the population still survives on smallholder farm plots. The opposition says farmers have often been forced off land and poorly compensated.
"This is theft. Land is being stolen from us and when we protest they are killing us," Tolossa, a farmer who uses just one name, said at a funeral in a village nearby.
Relatives said the dead man, Dinka Chala, a primary school teacher, was killed when he was caught up in a protest.
Under the government's 25-year plan, land in the Oromiya region around Addis Ababa is to become part of a zone with new infrastructure to attract investment. The area includes the capital and more than 30 other towns, including Ginchi. Some of the land will be assigned to businesses to create jobs.
The government has worked on the development plan for several years, sparking some small protests last year. But when it emerged in mid-November that land was to be leased near Ginchi, bigger protests erupted in the town and nearby areas.
Demonstrators, many of them students who joined farmers, have regularly clashed with police since then.
PROMISES OF CONSULTATION
The weeks of violence have been some of the worst since a disputed 2005 election when almost 200 people died. This year's parliamentary election in May passed off calmly, although opposition groups secured no seats.
Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn dismissed accusations that the police have used heavy-handed tactics. In comments broadcast on state television on Wednesday he accused opponents of stirring trouble and warned of a "merciless response to those destroying property."
He said the development proposals were only a draft, and the public would be given an opportunity to endorse or reject it. He did not say how such a consultation would take place.
Opponents say land has already been seized for businesses and farmers received inadequate compensation, a charge that has previously been levelled against the government in other locations.
"This is a corrupt practice. They are not heeding all this frustration," Merara Gudina, chairman of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress, told Reuters, giving the figure of 35 people killed so far in the clashes.
According to Ethiopian law, all land belongs to the state and those purchasing land are only considered leaseholders.
In Ginchi town on Thursday, schools and cafes were shuttered. Residents said there had been protests the previous day. Two private banks were closed. Police were camped out in the yard of a branch of state-owned Commercial Bank of Ethiopia.
"Armed gangs are terrorising civilians, killing government officials, unarmed security officers and farmers," government spokesman Getachew Reda said on Monday.
"If there are problems - and I do not believe they exist - they can only be addressed through consultations with the public," Getachew said. He could not be reached on Friday for further comment on the latest protests.
(Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Peter Graff)