Pressured by more than a week of sometimes deadly demonstrations, Ethiopia’s mining ministry agreed late Wednesday to suspend the gold-mining operations of a company accused of releasing dangerous chemicals in the country’s south.
“The suspension is in response to the demands of the people,” Bacha Faji, a spokesman for Ethiopia’s Ministry of Mines, Petroleum and Natural Gas, announced Wednesday evening on state-run media.
The move at least temporarily halts operations by Mohammed International Development Research and Organization Companies, or MIDROC, at a site near the town of Shakiso and the Lega Dembi River.
The ministry spokesman promised an independent investigation into MIDROC and said operations would resume if and when “all stakeholders agree on the result of that investigation.”
The company, owned by African-born Saudi billionaire Mohammed Hussein al-Amoudi, has operated the mine since the late 1990s.
MIDROC did not respond to a VOA query about the suspension. No update was available on its website.
The decision came in the wake of at least two deaths related to a wave of protests in the restive Oromia region. The protests began April 30, following news that the mining ministry had renewed MIDROC's mining permit for another 10 years.
The deaths occurred in or near the town of Adola, in the Oromia region’s East Guji zone.
On Tuesday, at least one person was fatally injured when demonstrators marched to the local police station to demand the release of detained compatriots, witnesses told VOA.
Chala Ware, Adola’s deputy mayor, told VOA that demonstrators crowded into the compound, and amid jostling, some fell into a drainage ditch.
“I’m not sure if the injuries were from gunshot or a fall,” he said, acknowledging that one person died and two others were hospitalized.
But a demonstrator who asked VOA to withhold his name out of fear of arrest said police had used tear gas on protesters, some of whom blindly stumbled into the ditch. Police retrieved them and took them inside the station, Damara said, noting that Red Cross workers who had shown up with stretchers initially were not allowed access.
Dembela Edema, another man, told VOA he saw the bodies of four demonstrators at Adola Hospital. He also reported seeing seven injured demonstrators. VOA was not able to confirm the deaths with official sources.
Also, sources told VOA on Wednesday that Chala, the Adola deputy mayor, has since been arrested. VOA repeatedly tried to phone him but got no answer.
On Wednesday, businessman Guta Dadhi was shot and killed while driving just outside the city. He was rushed to Adola Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. A local resident told VOA that Ethiopian military troops, on heightened alert because of the unrest, were responsible for his shooting.
Also Wednesday, roughly 2,000 demonstrators marched peacefully in Guji zone’s Girja district, said district administrator Miesso Gelgelo. He said they were making the same demand they had for years: “Find a solution to the damage the MIDROC gold mine is causing us.”
Demonstrators allege that chemicals used at the mine poison the water and air, leading to respiratory illnesses, miscarriages, birth defects and disabilities. They also charge that the commercial mining undercuts economic well-being in the area, displacing people from their homes and providing few jobs for locals.
Jalene Gemeda of VOA's Horn of Africa service contributed to this report, which was changed to provide more information and to correct the name of the dead businessman. He initially was misidentified as Shakiso Guta.