NAIROBI: Rights groups Thursday called on Ethiopia to rein in security forces they say have violently suppressed weeks of protests the government has blamed on “terrorists.”

Amnesty International says some 40 people have been killed, criticizing the use of “draconian anti-terrorism measures to quell protests.” The government has said five are confirmed dead.

Government spokesman Getachew Reda said the “peaceful demonstrations” that began last month had escalated into violence, accusing protesters of “terrorizing the civilians.”

Protests have taken place in towns including Haramaya, Jarso, Walliso and Robe, sparked by fears over land grabbing as the capital Addis Ababa expands onto land traditionally occupied by the Oromo people, the country’s largest ethnic group.

Amnesty International criticized a government linking of protesters with “terrorist” groups.

“Instead of condemning the unlawful killings by the security forces, which have seen the deaths of more than 40 people in the last three weeks, this statement in effect authorizes excessive use of force against peaceful protesters,” said Amnesty’s regional chief Muthoni Wanyeki.

“Instead of calling protesters ‘terrorists’, Ethiopia should rein in security forces and respect rights,” Human Rights Watch said.

Rights groups have repeatedly criticized Ethiopia’s use of anti-terrorism legislation to stifle peaceful dissent.