Sunday, October 02, 2005

Talks Defuse Political Crisis

The Australian -- AFTER a tense week of antagonism and threats, Ethiopia's government and opposition leaders held their first face-to-face talks in months overnight in an internationally-mediated bid to defuse a volatile political fracas.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi agreed to meet the Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF) and the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) after the two parties undertook to abide by the constitution and withdrew their appeal for a three-day strike to start today in protest against a ban on a demonstration scheduled for Sunday.

"The meeting, which was explanatory, was cordial and open," EUDF Chairman Beyen Petros said, saying the talks lasted four hours.

"It was very fruitful. I am optimistic things will be on the right track," he added, saying more talks would be held over the coming days.

Earlier in the day, government spokesman Berket Simon ruled out any possibility of talking about the opposition's number one demand: that the ruling coalition step down and agree to the formation of a government of national unity.

"As the opposition has accepted to work within the constitution and the rule of law by renouncing violence, the government will meet them this afternoon to discuss as how we are going to work in the parliament and other similar issues," he said.

"It is a meeting on how to implement constitutional rule," he said.

The government had justified banning the opposition demonstration by claiming it would be used to violently overthrow the regime, a claim the opposition denied.

The UEDF and CUD withdrew their strike call following discussions with diplomats acting as mediators with the government.

"We have been in continual contact with several ambassadors and they have also been in contact with the prime minister," the EUDF leader said earlier, adding that this mediation led the strike threat to be dropped.

The groups have not made clear, however, whether they still planned to boycott parliament as part of their protest of May elections they claim were rigged in favour of Meles's Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front.

Parliament is due to reopen on October 10.

Still, diplomats regarded the developments as an unexpected breakthrough.

"On Saturday morning opposition leaders were still wondering where to hide to avoid being jailed," said one, asking not to be named.

More than 150 of their followers have been arrested over the last week, according to official sources.

"Everyone probably realised that a strike would lead to serious confrontation, perhaps even riots, large-scale arrests and certainly violence," mused another diplomat.

At least 37 people were killed in the capital in June when police opened fire on demonstrators protesting about the May elections, the most controversial in the country's history.


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