Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Stormy Election Concludes in Ethiopia

CNN.com -- JIJIGA, Ethiopia (AP) -- Voting in Ethiopia's eastern Somali region ended peacefully Sunday, but the delayed elections, which have been denounced by a separatist group, were dogged by chaos and irregularities, officials said.

Voters in the mostly ethnic Somali region, some of them armed with assault rifles, gathered at sunrise at polling stations to elect 23 federal lawmakers and 168 regional legislators. Some voters said they hoped the election would bring a way out of poverty for the region.

General elections were held in the rest of the country on May 15. But voting in the Somali region was made difficult by heavy rains, poor communications, the region's nomadic lifestyle and the presence of separatist rebels. Elite forces, pro-government militia and police patrolled streets to secure Sunday's delayed vote.

In a sign that tensions were high Sunday, police fired shots into the air to disperse voters who had rushed a polling station in the regional capital, Jijiga, to protest delays in voting. One woman was injured in the stampede.

Minutes later, hundreds returned to cast ballots as troops, police and militiamen kept watch.

"Overall the voting has gone smoothly," said Kemal Bedri, chairman of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia, adding that a few polling stations remained open after polls closed to allow people who were lining up to cast their ballots.

The elections were not trouble free. A Western electoral observer noted that voting in the remote Somali region "has been very chaotic, although relatively calm, and lots of irregularities."

The observer, who did not want to be identified because of tensions with Ethiopian authorities, refused to provide further details before an official report is released.

The May elections were followed by days of violence as protesters angered by allegations of fraud faced off with security forces in deadly clashes.

The Ogaden National Liberation Front, which wants an independent state for ethnic Somalis, denounced Sunday's elections as a ploy to maintain federal control of the of the impoverished region.

The group said in a statement that polls were being held "in an environment where freedom of assembly is habitually denied, freedom of expression punishable by detention and homegrown independent Somali media denied operating rights effectively silencing dissenting political opinion."

"Ballots are being held in military compounds and in some cases these same compounds have been designated as venues for casting voting ballots, creating ample opportunity for coercion and intimidation," the statement said. "Voting ballots are readily available on the black market and there is no indication that a vast majority of polling stations will have any kind of independent monitors present."

The elections have also revealed a split within opposition parties after candidates ignored calls for a boycott by party leaders who alleged vote tampering in Sunday's vote. Party leaders also accused the military of interference and said their supporters had been harassed.

Still, farmer Ahmed Mohamoud Bedi, 30, was eager to vote at the Dud Afi village, 760 kilometers (472 miles) east of Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa.

"We hope our vote can bring greater development and prosperity to the region," said the father of 10 who has no electricity or running water at his thatched hut. "We have lived with poverty for too long and now is the time for change."

Polls opened at 6 a.m. and closed at 6 p.m. Results are expected September 5.

On Sunday, electoral authorities were also holding a repeat of elections in 20 parliamentary constituencies where the ruling party complained of irregularities in the May vote and in 11 districts where the opposition filed challenges.

Both Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front and the opposition have said that massive irregularities took place across the country.

Protesters angered by alleged fraud in the May vote took to the streets, and human rights groups say 42 people were killed by security forces trying to disperse the crowds.

Results from the May voting show the ruling coalition won 296 seats in the 547-member assembly and its allied parties won 22 seats. The election board said the opposition won 161 seats. Opposition parties only won 12 seats during the last elections, in 2000.

Some of the repeat votes being held are in the constituencies of senior government officials, including Information Minister Bereket Simon. He was narrowly defeated, according to provisional results, but lodged complaints of voter intimidation.

Ethiopian city of Kabridahar for malnutrition and tuberculosis. The United Nations called on international donors not to let the food crisis in Niger lead them to forget the grave humanitarian situation in Ethiopia.(AFP/File/Joel Robine)

More Than 3 Million Face Hunger in Ethiopia - UN

Planet Ark -- With hunger in Niger grabbing world attention, the United Nations urged donors on Wednesday not to forget Ethiopia, where it said more than 3 million people need emergency food aid this year.

In a country notorious for the famine that killed 1 million people 20 years ago, the UN World Food Programme said repeated droughts meant again children with bloated stomachs were sitting listlessly at feeding centres as gaunt parents toiled arid land.

"Scenes at some of the supplementary feeding centres, established and run by the government in southern Ethiopia, show the worst side of a hunger that remains depressingly familiar," said WFP's Ethiopia director Mohamed Diab.

In a statement released in Nairobi, Diab said the situation was not as bad as 2003, when more than 13 million people needed food aid, but that the agency and its partners were monitoring 40 "hunger spots".

Erratic rains caused small harvests this year in the Horn of Africa country of 70 million people, almost 1 million of whom WFP said would still need food aid after December's main harvest.

Before that, up to 3.3 million Ethiopians are expected to need donations to survive, it said, pushing the country's emergency food needs this year to more than 600,000 tonnes.

"Ethiopia has had five major droughts in just two decades, causing untold deaths, suffering and hardship," Diab said.

"Many families never have time to recover from one calamity before another befalls them, wiping out crops, animals and what few assets they may have managed to scrape together."

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