By Sally Hayden

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Ethiopian government has given a public assurance that the Olympic marathon silver medalist, Feyisa Lilesa, would be safe if he returns to Ethiopia, following his protest against the treatment of his Oromo people as he crossed the finish line.

Lilesa crossed his arms above his head in an "X", a sign widely used as a symbol of Oromo resistance. The champion runner did not return home after the Olympics, fearing for his safety even though the government said he would not be punished.

"He is always welcome," Ethiopia's communications minister, Getachew Reda, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that Lilesa is an "Ethiopian hero".

"He was selected among many in the field not because he held one political opinion or another, but because he was a great, if not one of the greatest athletes in the field. As you would agree with me, he delivered and delivered big."

In an email to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the minister said: "He is our hero. That's good enough a reason for him to want to come home. I don't think he needs my assurance or that of the prime minister or any such. He is more than welcome back home."

In a Skype interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation from Rio on Thursday, Lilesa said he feared his life would be at risk if he returned and did not trust assurances he would be safe.

"They kill and they don't tell the world they kill, they jail and they don't tell anybody, so how can I believe that?" he said.

Lilesa said he had not been contacted directly by any government official but believed that he could not return home once he had made his protest gesture.

"I knew] I would be jailed or killed if not, I would [never be allowed] out of that country and allowed to participate in any international competition or race at all. I am quite sure those things would happen to me."

The 26-year-old runner said he had been given temporary leave to stay by the Brazilian authorities but had not decided yet where he was going to seek asylum.

The Oromiya region, home to more than 25 million ethnic Oromos, has been riven by unrest for months over land rights and allegations of human rights violations.

Demonstrations began last year against a government plan to allocate farmland to the capital Addis Ababa for development, potentially displacing many farmers. Protesters were quickly and violently suppressed by security forces, according to activists and witnesses.

Unrest spread to other parts of the country and human rights organizations estimate that as many as 500 demonstrators have been killed over the past nine months.

The government disputes the death toll and says the protests are being staged illegally, stoked by rebel groups and overseas-based dissidents.

(Reporting by Sally Hayden, Editing by Paola Totaro and Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)