Riots Spread Across Ethiopian Capital; 23 Dead, 150 Wounded

Riot police deployed across the Ethiopian capital firing guns and lobbing grenades Wednesday to quell a second day of protests over disputed parliamentary elections. At least 23 people were killed and 150 wounded, including children, doctors and hospital workers said.

One man said police broke into his family's housing compound firing guns indiscriminately in their search for stone-throwing demonstrators.

However, government Information Minister Berhan Hailu (search) said the casualty figures had been exaggerated and put the death toll at 11 civilians and one police officer. He said 54 officers and 28 civilians were injured.

The killing of civilians was a political setback for Prime Minister Meles Zenawi (search), touted by the Bush administration as a progressive African leader and a key partner in the war on terror.

The May 15 vote, which gave his ruling Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (search) control of 60 percent of the parliament, had been seen as a key test of Meles' commitment to reform. Opposition parties say the vote and ballot-counting were marred by fraud, intimidation and violence, and accuse the ruling party of rigging the elections.

Machine-gun fire and explosions rocked the capital Wednesday, and armored personnel carriers carrying special forces troops charged down streets littered with burning tires and broken glass.

The violence spread across the city of 3 million people, reaching the doorsteps of the British, French, Kenyan and Belgian embassies — all located in different parts of the capital. Workers at U.N. headquarters (search) were told not to leave their offices.

An Associated Press reporter saw police surround Zewditu Hospital, dragging out and arresting young men. Witnesses said security officials were rounding up young people in various parts of the city.

Tigist Daniel, 16, said she brought her 50-year-old mother to a hospital after police shot her in the stomach.

"All my mother was trying to do was save my brother because he had been caught up in the fighting. She ran out of the house to grab him and the police just shot at her," she said. "They are shooting anyone who comes out of their house."

Abdul Fatal said his 13-year-old daughter, Arabia, suffered shrapnel wounds to her stomach and legs.

"The police were looking for rioters and burst into our compound. They fired tear gas and then threw a grenade," said Fatal, a 44-year-old laborer. "The police then started shooting in the compound. My daughter has never been in trouble with anyone."

Doctors at five hospitals said the bodies of 23 people killed in the clashes were brought to emergency rooms and at least 150 people were treated for injuries, including a 7-year-old boy who was shot in the hip. Earlier the hospital count was 27 dead; there was no explanation for the change.

Adam Melaku, head of the independent Ethiopian Human Rights Council, revised his group's death count, saying at least eight people were killed instead of the 33 dead the group gave earlier Wednesday. He did not explain the revision.

The violence followed clashes Tuesday between protesters and police that killed eight people and wounded 43. The protests erupted after 30 taxi drivers were arrested on Monday for participating in demonstrations against the parliamentary elections.

Wednesday's clashes came hours after security officials arrested opposition leaders. All 15 members of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy's central committee and about 1,000 supporters were taken into custody, a lawyer who works for the opposition party said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.

The opposition says hundreds of their supporters and members have been arrested in the past two months. At least 42 people were killed by police during protests in June, according to human rights groups.

Opposition spokesman Gizachew Shiferaw (search) accused police of using excessive force.

The Chairman of the African Union Commission Alpha Oumar Konare condemned the escalating violence and loss of lives. He appealed for restraint and urged both sides to address problems "through peaceful means and dialogue within the framework of the constitution and the law of the country."

Berhan said the government was "sorry and sad" for the violence, which he blamed on the main opposition party. He said demonstrators burned several buses and destroyed four houses, but that calm was returning to the capital later Wednesday.