Ethiopia: Gov't criticised for suppressing demonstrators

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

ADDIS ABABA, 10 June (IRIN) - Ethiopia came under international criticism on Thursday following three days of violence when security forces reportedly opened fire and killed at least 26 people during demonstrations to protest alleged electoral fraud.

Human-rights organisations and world leaders called for calm and restraint by security forces and urged the Ethiopian government to lift the reporting ban imposed on five journalists.

Information minister Bereket Simon, however, said responsibility for the violence lay with opposition political parties and called for the spotlight to be focused on them.

Opposition parties denied they were to blame and accused the government of "fermenting violence" to undermine government opponents.

The Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, remained quiet but tense, with soldiers patrolling the streets. Some taxi drivers continued their fourth day of a strike and some shops stayed closed. Police also continued to round up suspects accused of causing trouble.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan condemned the violence in the capital.

"The Secretary-General calls on the Ethiopian Government and the opposition leaders to do everything possible to resolve their differences through dialogue and legal means," a spokesman said in a statement.

"The Secretary-General urges the parties to commit themselves firmly to accept the final results that will be announced after the investigation is completed. In the meantime, he calls on all parties for calm, respect for the law and the rights of the people," he added.

One of the leaders from the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), Lidetu Ayalew, who has provisionally won a parliamentary seat in Addis, was freed late on Thursday after several days of detention.

"He was released late last night after being held in his office," Debebe Eshete, the CUD spokesman, said. Another 14 CUD members remained in police custody since their arrests following Wednesday's violence, when police and troops fired into crowds, killing at least 26 people.

An official from the Ethiopian Human Rights Council was also reported to be under arrest.

CUD vice-chairman Berhanu Nega also claimed he was prevented from flying out of the country to a fundraising meeting in London. "We cannot say this is a democracy with conditions like this," he said.

The United States called the violence "unacceptable".

"We urge students, civil society leaders, opposition supporters and government - members of the government and political leaders - to refrain from violence and maintain a peaceful atmosphere in Ethiopia," Scott McClellen, a White House spokesman, said.

Amnesty International accused the police and security forces of using excessive force.

"While Amnesty International respects the right of governments to maintain public order, the Ethiopian police have acted as a Goliath toward student protestors by answering slingshots with the ferocity of firearms," William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said.

"International standards clearly permit the use of firearms only as a last resort to save lives," he added.

The human rights group also expressed fears for the welfare of detained Addis Ababa university students, who are being held incommunicado without charge. They have been beaten, forced to do harsh exercises and denied adequate food and medical treatment.

EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana, expressed his deep concern about the situation.

He also appealed to all parties to avoid any inflammatory language or action that could lead to further violence.

The Carter Center, founded by former US President Jimmy Carter, who was one of the observers during the Ethiopian elections, also called for calm and restraint on all sides.

"Carter Center observers have been witness to and received reports of acts of violence that appear to be the result of a lack of restraint on the part of some government security forces," a statement from the organisation said.

"The Center calls upon the government to take immediate steps to curb the extreme measures employed by the security forces, which have led to multiple deaths. We condemn the arrests and other methods of harassment of opposition leaders and members," it added.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government said it regretted the deaths, but maintained that the police acted to stop "hooligans" from looting and disturbing the peace.

"This violence has been perpetrated by the opposition forces," Bereket said. "Their objective is to undermine the constitution and overthrow the government and that is why they are orchestrating this violence."

"These acts are caused by the opposition and they should take full responsibility," he added.


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