By Aaron Maasho
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Four people were killed in eastern Ethiopia when a group of armed demonstrators raided a police station following protests over alleged government interference in Muslim affairs, an official said on Monday.
Thousands of people have staged weekly street protests and mosque sit-ins in the Horn of Africa country's capital for nearly a year, arguing that the government is promoting an "alien" branch of Islam - the Al Ahbash sect - which is avowedly apolitical and has numerous adherents in the United States.
The protesters say the government controls Ethiopia's highest Muslim body, the Supreme Council on Islamic Affairs, and has prevented long-overdue elections that could bring alternative views onto the Council.
Officials deny interference and accuse the demonstrators of plotting to spread "extremism" in the country, which is 63 percent Christian and 34 percent Muslim, according to official figures.
The Council held polls two weeks ago but some members of the Muslim community had called for boycotts.
The incident late on Sunday occurred after postponed elections were held in the town of Gerba in the Amhara region, and sparked by the arrest of a protester who attempted to disrupt the vote, government spokesman Shimeles Kemal said.
"His supporters, armed with machetes and handguns, tried to have him released by force," he told Reuters.
"In the ensuing conflict, three members of the extremist group who tried violently to break in the prison were shot dead by police officers."
Shimeles said one police officer was also killed while two others were wounded during the scuffle.
A similar incident saw four people killed in the Oromiya region in May.
Activists have posted pictures online of dead bodies and men with gaping wounds they said were sustained during the incident.
Security officials rounded up several members of the protesters' committee a few months ago and the majority of them are awaiting trial.
Ethiopian officials say the protesters are bankrolled and commanded by Islamist groups in the Middle East and accuse the group of plotting to turn the country into a "sharia-led" state.
The demonstrators deny this and claim their grievances are purely aimed at government tampering.
Al Ahbash, also known as the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects, was founded in the early 1980s by Sheikh Abdullah al Harrari, an Ethiopian cleric who was forced to leave his country for Lebanon in 1950.
The vast majority of Muslims in the country adhere to a moderate, Sufi version of Islam.
(Editing by James Macharia; Editing by Michael Roddy)