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By Aaron Maasho

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Security forces in Ethiopia's eastern Somali region shot four people dead on Monday who were protesting the looting of their shops and homes during unrest triggered by the deployment of soldiers at the weekend, a witness said.

Witnesses said federal troops deployed in the province's capital Jijiga on Friday and one journalist said they wanted to arrest regional officials.

But their presence sparked violence in several towns and crowds looted and burned property and shops owned by ethnic minorities in Jijiga.

The attacks forced thousands to seek refuge in an Ethiopian Orthodox church since Friday, residents told Reuters. On Monday, some of them staged a protest.

"They blocked a road surrounding the church to demonstrate, before security forces arrived and began firing indiscriminately," said an employee for an international organisation who lives in the town told Reuters.

The employee, who declined to be named, said he saw four bodies on the ground after the crowd was dispersed, and that gunfire rung out throughout the day.

At least two Ethiopian Orthodox churches were also burned down over the weekend, witnesses told Reuters.

It was not immediately clear why central authorities deployed troops. Residents said some soldiers were deployed outside the offices of regional officials in an attempt to arrest them.

Government officials in Addis Ababa and Jijiga were not reachable for comment.

On Saturday, Ethiopia's defence ministry confirmed the deployment of soldiers.

"The violence has not been halted despite attempts by defence forces and other security forces to restore calm," the ministry said in a statement.

"Hence, as the region's peace and security has come under threat, our defence forces will not remain silent in the face of unrest and chaos and will take necessary measures in accordance with constitutional obligations," the statement said.

The Somali region has seen sporadic violence for three decades. The government has fought the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) since 1984 after the group launched a bid for secession of the province, also known as Ogaden.

Since 2017, clashes along its border with Oromiya province have displaced tens of thousands of people.

In July, the region's officials were accused by the government in Addis Ababa of perpetrating rights abuses. Last month, authorities fired senior prison officials there over allegations of torture.

(Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

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Reuters