ADDIS ABABA, 16 June (IRIN) - Britain has frozen 20 million pounds sterling (US $36 million) in aid to Ethiopia due to last week's civil unrest that left some 36 people dead, a senior UK government official said on Wednesday.
"I am putting on hold the planned increase in direct budget support that we were looking at, which was 20 million [pounds]," Hilary Benn, Britain's development minister, told reporters in the capital, Addis Ababa.
"In my view, it is sensible to hold on to that to see how the situation develops," he added.
Benn, who was on a one-day visit Ethiopia, announced the decision hours after a meeting with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi during which they discussed the recent violence triggered by demonstrations in Addis Ababa against alleged fraud in the country's parliamentary elections on 15 May.
Benn, who also met with opposition leaders to appeal for calm, said Meles had promised a public investigation into the unrest during which 36 people died when police and troops allegedly opened fire on stone-throwing protesters.
Britain currently provides 30 million pounds ($54 million) in direct budget support to the government, which was to be expanded to 50 million pounds ($90.4 million) this year. It is the first country to announce any specific action following the violence.
During his meeting with Meles, Benn also asked that the Red Cross be given access to detainees arrested last week and for those in custody either to be charged or released. Benn said he had given Meles a list of five human rights workers and media activists believed to be under arrest.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Wednesday the government crackdown had spread to many parts of Ethiopia. Local human rights groups also have accused the administration of arresting their staff members.
"The security forces have killed dozens of protesters and arbitrarily detained thousands of people across the country," Georgette Gagnon, the HRW deputy director for Africa, said.
Ethiopia's federal police confirmed some arrests in Ziway, about 150 km south of the capital, but did not specify the number. The government, however, said many of those who had been arrested were being freed.
"The police have begun releasing many individuals, and this process will continue," Zemedkun Teckle, the government spokesman, said.
Benn added that the coming days would be a critical time for Ethiopia and a "very important test of Africa's commitment to good governance" in the run-up to the G8 summit.
Meles is a member of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Africa Commission, which has been pushing for more aid to Africa and better governance on the continent.
Benn said his decision to withhold funding would not affect the 60 million pounds ($105.8 million) in aid that Britain already had given Ethiopia in 2005.
"Can I make it absolutely clear that Britain remains committed to the development partnership that we have with Ethiopia, above all because it is in the interests of the Ethiopian people," Benn said. "I do not want the poor to suffer as a result of what has happened here in the last few weeks."
The delayed final election results are due to be announced on 8 July, after the electoral board has reviewed 299 complaints in the 547 parliamentary constituencies.
Provisional results show the incumbent Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (ERPDF) retaining the majority of seats in parliament. The opposition, however, made significant gains in the election, winning 189 seats, up from 12 in the last parliament; they comprehensively defeated the ERPDF in the capital, winning all 23 seats.
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