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Ethiopian deaths in fire at prison ‘holding Oromo protesters’

Political activists from the Oromo ethnic group are believed to be held in the jail. PHOTO: REUTERS

An unknown number of inmates have died after a fire at an Ethiopian prison where prominent anti-government protesters are reportedly being held.

Sustained gunfire could be heard coming from Qilinto prison, on the outskirts of the capital Addis Ababa, after the fire broke out, local media reported.

The government confirms “some” deaths, while local media report that at least 20 people had died in the incident.

There has been an unprecedented wave of protests in Ethiopia in recent months.

BBC reported that the fire was started deliberately as part of an attempted jailbreak has not been independently verified.

There have been numerous protests in the Oromia region by members of the country’s largest ethnic group since November 2015.

Qilinto is a remand prison, where people can be held for three years or more as they await trial.

The prison is divided in four zones made up of block walls and tin roofed cells.

The prison hosts around 3,000 inmates at a time who are held in cells measuring between 24m by 12m. The number of prisoners kept in a cell varies from 90 to 130.

It is a highly secured prison with surveillance cameras installed on various corners.

All types of prisoners are held there but it is where political prisoners including bloggers, journalists and activists are usually sent.

Customarily, political prisoners mix with other criminals but they are usually locked up in a designated “Kitat Bet” (punishment house) or “dark house” if they complain about mistreatment.

Inmates can be exposed to communicable diseases due to overcrowding and get poor medical attention.

Due to the bad quality of food provided by the prison administration, prisoners mainly depend on food brought by their families.