Protesters in Ethiopia blocked roads, burned tyres and chanted slogans denouncing Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Wednesday after a high-profile activist accused security forces of trying to orchestrate an attack against him.
Demonstrations occurred mainly in towns in Oromia, one of nine regions in the ethnically diverse country, and in the capital Addis, after Oromo activist Jawar Mohammed made the claim, sources said.
"Everything is shut down. Businesses are shut and all the roads leading to other parts of Ethiopia are barricaded with tyres, tree trunks and stones," said Berhanu Kebede, a resident of Shashamane, a town south of Addis.
He said some members of the crowd were shouting "Down, down, Abiy!"
The unrest highlights divisions within the ethnic Oromo support base that swept Abiy to power last year -- divisions that could undermine the Nobel Peace Prize laureate's position ahead of elections planned for May 2020.
It began Wednesday morning with a standoff in the capital, Addis Ababa, between the security forces and hundreds of Jawar's supporters.
As head of the US-based Oromia Media Network, Jawar played a crucial role in promoting anti-government protests that prompted Ethiopia's ruling coalition to appoint Abiy as the first prime minister from the Oromo ethnic group, Ethiopia's largest.
But the two men have been at odds recently, with Jawar openly criticising some of Abiy's reforms.
In a speech to lawmakers Tuesday, Abiy issued a warning to "foreigners and those who don't hold Ethiopian passports" -- an apparent dig at Jawar, who carries a US passport.
"If it comes down to compromising the peace and existence of Ethiopia, whatever language you speak, whether it is Amharic or Afaan Oromo, we will take measures any time and you better believe that," Abiy said. "You can't play in two houses."
In a Facebook post Wednesday, Jawar said officials tried unsuccessfully to remove his security detail overnight, triggering the standoff.
"Now it appears the plan was not to arrest me," he said.
"The plan was to remove my security and unleash civilian attackers and claim it was a mob attack."
Federal police commissioner Endeshaw Tassew denied that the government was planning anything against Jawar.
In a statement, he said Jawar's supporters had blocked multiple roads in the city.
"I call upon the youths, the wider society, the security forces and high-level officials to open closed roads to allow the society to move around peacefully," he said.
"This message is for all society: The problems we encounter today could have adverse impacts on investment."
Witnesses also described protests in the cities of Dire Dawa, Harar, Ambo and Adama.
William Davison, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group (ICG) thinktank, said the unrest reaffirmed Jawar's power and spelled potential trouble for Abiy.
"Prime Minister Abiy and his Oromo Democratic Party risk losing significant amounts of support in Oromia unless relations with Jawar and his loyalists are swiftly repaired, while any move to arrest him is highly likely to trigger further serious unrest," he said.