ADDIS ABABA, June 15 (Reuters) - Britain froze a planned 20 million pound ($36 million) increase in aid to Ethiopia on Wednesday in response to a government crackdown on political unrest in which 36 people were killed.
Announcing the move during a visit to the impoverished Horn of Africa country, International Development Minister Hilary Benn said Britain, one of Ethiopia's biggest aid donors, wanted "a return to the constitutional path" following the violence.
"We have been planning to increase our direct budget support. I am currently putting that on hold while we review how the situation in Ethiopia develops," Benn told reporters, adding that both the government and opposition should show restraint.
"In my meeting with Prime Minister Meles (Zenawi) and opposition leaders I expressed the British government's great concern about the situation here in Ethiopia."
At least 36 people were killed in Addis Ababa last week when police opened fire on protesters demonstrating against the alleged rigging by the government of May 15 parliamentary elections. Addis Ababa residents estimate about 3,000 people have been detained since the violence.
The government denies election fraud, and diplomats called the polls the most democratic in Ethiopia's history.
But a delay in announcing the final results, now due on July 8, compounded by rival claims of victory and accusations of fraud, have prolonged the tension in Africa's top coffee grower.
Meles's Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) accused the main opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) of stirring up the violence, and said that on June 8, the single bloodiest day of unrest, police opened fire after looters and rioters attacked them with stones.
A spokesman for Benn's department said Britain currently provided 30 million in support for Ethiopia's budget, and that this had been due to rise to 50 million pounds. It was the planned 20 million pound rise Britain was suspending, he said.
Total British aid to Ethiopia, including programmes on food, education and health, runs at 60 million pounds a year.
Benn added: "I raised with Prime Minister Meles specifically the question of those who have been detained, the importance of allowing access by the Red Cross to the detention facilities and of notifying the families of those being detained.
"I also raised with the Prime Minister the need to either charge the people detained in line with the Ethiopian constitution or for them to be released."
New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report meanwhile that the government's crackdown on unrest had spread into the countryside, where, it said, security forces had killed dozens of protesters and thousands of people had been detained.
"While international attention has focused on events in Addis Ababa, opposition members and students in other cities are increasingly at risk of arbitrary arrest and torture," it said.
An information ministry spokesman declined to comment on the report, other than to reiterate that anyone found not to have been involved in politial unrest would be freed.
Hailu Shawel, chairman of the CUD, said that he had been freed on Tuesday after several days of house arrest but added that others jailed during the violence must also be released.
Benn hinted that Ethiopia's response to the unrest would be under the spotlight at a summit of the Group of Eight rich nations in Scotland next month, where aid, debt relief and trade reform for Africa is expected to be a major topic.
"There is a commitment to good governance in the run up to the G8 summit and in view of what is happening in Ethiopia, it is a very important test not only for Ethiopia but for Africa's commitment to good governance," he said.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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