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Demonstrators chant slogans while flashing the Oromo protest gesture during Irreecha, the thanksgiving festival of the Oromo people, in Bishoftu town, Oromiya region, Ethiopia, in this file photo taken October 2, 2016. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri/File Photo


By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The U.S. citizen killed in Ethiopia during a wave of protests over land and political rights this week was a 31-year-old postdoctoral researcher at a California university, the school said.

Sharon Gray from the University of California, Davis was in Ethiopia working on a project for the Department of Plant Biology when she died during the demonstrations, Ken Burtis, interim provost, said. The university announced Gray's death on its website on Wednesday.

A colleague from the Department of Plant Biology who was travelling with Gray was not hurt and was on her way back to the United States, Burtis said.

He said the U.S. State Department was assisting in bringing Gray's body home. A university spokeswoman said on Thursday Gray was originally from the Chicago area.

"On behalf of the entire U.C. Davis campus, our hearts and condolences go out to Sharon’s husband and extended family. Even in tragedy, we hope that we all can find some comfort in the wonderful work Sharon was engaged in that will better the lives of so many around the world," Burtis said in a statement.

State Department spokesman John Kirby confirmed that an American citizen had died on Tuesday but declined to provide the name or further details.

"We offer our sincerest condolences to the family and to the loved ones. We are providing all possible consular assistance. Out of respect for the family, we must decline further comment," Kirby said.

Asked if the United States believed that the person had been deliberately targeted or had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time, Kirby replied: "As for the situation itself, that’s really for the local authorities to speak to in terms of the investigation and how they are looking into it."

On her Twitter page, Sharon Gray described herself as "NSF Postdoctoral Fellow in Plant Biology at UC Davis, outdoor adventurer, traveller, foodie."

The U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia on Wednesday said that an American woman was killed on Tuesday when stones were hurled at her vehicle on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. Residents there have said that crowds have attacked other vehicles since a stampede at a weekend protest killed at least 55 people.

That stampede began when police fired teargas and shots in the air to disperse anti-government demonstrations during a festival in the Oromiya region, south of the capital, which has been a focus for demonstrations by locals who say land has been seized to build factories and housing blocks.Protests have also increasingly turned to broader issues of political freedom.

The death toll from unrest and clashes between police and demonstrators over the past year or more runs into several hundred, according to opposition estimates. The government says such figures are inflated.

Rights group Amnesty International demanded an investigation into how security forces handled the weekend protest that led to the stampede during a popular cultural festival in Oromiya, saying it had documented multiple complaints of police using excessive force against largely peaceful protesters.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammaed in Washington, D.C., and Asli Kandemir in Istanbul; Editing by Leslie Adler)


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