By Aaron Maasho
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Internet users in Ethiopia said on Monday the government appeared to have ended a three-month online blackout, raising hopes of a relaxation of restrictions after the arrival of a new prime minister who promised reforms.
Mobile and broadband internet services shut down in December in many regions outside the capital that were hit by unrest that threatened the ruling coalition's tight hold on country.
Rights groups accused the government of trying to stop them spreading news online and organizing rallies calling for land rights and other freedoms - charges the government denied.
But internet users said they had noticed services returning following the April 2 inauguration of Abiy Ahmed.
The communications minister and the state-run telecoms monopoly did not immediately reply to requests for comment.
"We are very happy that it is back to normal," said Hassan Bulcha, who runs an internet cafe in Shashemene, a town in the state of Oromiya which has seen some of the worst violence since protests erupted in 2015.
Groups that monitor internet usage in Ethiopia - one of the last countries on the continent with a state telecoms monopoly - gave the news a guarded welcome.
"Restoration of Ethiopia's internet is a short-term win in a long-term struggle," said Peter Micek of Access Now, a group that said it recorded two large-scale internet shutdowns in Ethiopia in 2017 and three in 2016.
The move was a step forward, but worries remained about the government's wider commitment to freedoms, said CIPESA (Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa), a Uganda-based body that lists Britain among its funders.
"It would be too optimistic to expect that the new prime minister’s government will overnight dismantle all the layers of authoritarian control that have for decades been at the center of state power in Ethiopia," said Juliet Nanfuka from CIPESA.
The government has denied accusations that it abuses protesters' rights and said it has only acted to keep order.
The new prime minister, a 42-year-old former army officer from Oromiya, has traveled to several areas of the country, promising to address grievances strengthen a range of political and civil rights.
But the country remains under a state of emergency imposed a day after Abiy Ahmed's predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn resigned in February. [L8N1Q7087]
Since 2015, hundreds have died in violence triggered by demonstrations over land rights in Ethiopia's Oromiya region. The protests broadened into rallies over freedoms that spread to other regions.
Unlike in other African countries where the majority of internet users access the web through mobile phones, internet cafes are still widely used in Ethiopia because smartphones remain expensive and mobile data costs are high.
Africa's second-most populous nation has clocked the region's fastest economic growth rates over the past decade but it has among the region's lowest internet penetration rates.
People in Oromiya, which surrounds the capital, in the Amhara region, and in the eastern city of Harar and nearby Dire Dawa, told Reuters internet access and mobile 3G services resumed about a week ago.
(Additional reporting and writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Andrew Heavens)