Ethiopia forces hold opposition leaders after clashes

By Katie Nguyen

ADDIS ABABA, June 9 (Reuters) - Ethiopian security forces held some opposition leaders under house arrest on Thursday, a day after police and troops fired into crowds killing at least 22 people in the country's worst bloodshed in four years.

Troops patrolled deserted streets and, for a second day, most shops were shut and blue taxis that usually clog the capital's streets were nowhere to be seen.

The violence on Wednesday flared after weeks of opposition accusations that the ruling party had intimidated voters and rigged the polls to hold on to power in the strategic Horn of Africa nation.

Some opposition leaders were being kept at their homes, party sources and European Union observers said.

"The mission has conveyed to the government its condemnation of the house arrests and other harassment and threatening measures imposed on the opposition," EU chief observer Ana Gomez said late on Wednesday.

Some older residents in Addis Ababa worry the country is on the verge of returning to its totalitarian past rather than embracing a democratic future.

They say the protest crackdown is an eerie reminder of the coup that deposed Emperor Haile Selassie and brought Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam to power in 1974.

"That's how it was when they overthrew Haile Selassie - the shops closed, there was a strike, then the military took over," said a civil servant in his 50s who did not want to be named for fear of angering authorities.

"It's just like Mengistu's regime, with all the shooting and all the killing," he said.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has ruled since 1991, when his guerrilla army deposed Mengistu.


Ethiopian authorities blamed the main opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) for inciting crowds to loot shops, rob banks and attack police on Wednesday.

But the CUD said the clashes, after two days of student protests in which one person was killed and hundreds arrested, were spontaneous.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Council, which spoke to the media about the death toll as it grew on Wednesday, said authorities had arrested one of its members. A day after the shootings, red-bereted special forces rode in a convoy of armoured vehicles through the empty streets of the capital, strewn with rocks and lined by shops with metal shutters clamped over their windows.

Less than a month ago, the same streets were overflowing with people voting in what diplomats described as Ethiopia's most democratic elections in its history.

But a month's delay in official election results until July 8, compounded by claims of victory by both sides and accusations of fraud, has ratcheted up the tension in Africa's top coffee grower since May's landmark polls.

Early results show the EPRDF and allies have won enough seats for a third five-year term to rule the nation of 72 million, sub-Saharan Africa's second most populous.

However, the CUD has increased its share of parliamentary seats by nearly tenfold and made a clean sweep in Addis Ababa -- surprising all observers.

The United States, which views Ethiopia as a key ally in fighting terrorism and as a stabilising force in the region, called on both sides to refrain from violence and to resolve differences by political dialogue.


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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