However, a witness told the BBC that 47 were killed by the security forces.
She said the protests in Ambo, 125km (80 miles) west of Addis Ababa began last Friday over plans to expand the capital into Oromia state.
The government did not say how most of the deaths had been caused but the Ambo resident said she had seen the army firing live ammunition.
“I saw more than 20 bodies on the streets,” she said.
“I am hiding in my house because I am scared.”
The Ambo resident said that four students had been killed on Monday and another 43 in a huge security crackdown on Tuesday, after a huge demonstration including many non-students.
Since then, the town’s streets have been deserted, she said, with banks and shops closed and no transport.
She said teaching had been suspended at Ambo University, where the protests began, and students prevented from leaving.
In a statement, the government said eight people had died during violent protests led by “anti-peace forces” in the towns of Ambo and Tokeekutayu, as well as Meda Welabu University, also in Oromia state.
It said one person had been killed “in a related development” when a hand grenade was thrown at students watching a football match.
The statement blamed the protests on “baseless rumours” being spread about the “integrated development master plan” for the capital.
BBC Ethiopia analyst Hewete Haileselassie says some ethnic Oromos feel the government is dominated by members of the Tigray and Amhara communities and they would be loath to see the size of “their” territory diminish with the expansion of Addis Ababa, which is claimed by both Oromos and Amharas.
Source: BBC News