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Saturday, November 05, 2005

Ethiopian Leader Orders Independent Probe of Unrest


An Ethiopian mother holds portraits of her son who was killed when street battles erupted this week between police and opposition protesters, in which at least 42 people were killed, during a funeral in Addis Ababa November 5, 2005. REUTERS/David Manyua

Reuters -- Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said on Saturday an independent commission of inquiry would be set up to investigate political unrest that has shaken confidence in the African nation's stability.

In an interview with Ethiopian state media, Meles said the government and police had a right to protect property and lives.

"Although they had to use force, they are not required to use excessive force," he said. "An independent body will conduct investigations to ascertain whether excessive force was used."

Clashes between the opposition and police have killed at least 42 people in Addis Ababa in the worst unrest for months, prompting the United States, the European Union and the African Union to urge both sides in the Horn of Africa's main power to show restraint.

Meles gave no other details of the inquiry, but said it would also probe political violence in June when 36 people died.

He said leaders of the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) arrested during this week's clashes would face court as soon as investigations were complete.

"Out of 60 CUD control committee members, the government decided to arrest only 25 suspected of being involved in violence," Meles said, adding that the police had been attacked by opposition supporters hurling grenades and wielding machetes.

BORDER CRISIS

On Friday, protests began to the north, east and south of the capital, with four people killed and 11 injured in the northern town of Bahir Dar, bringing the total of deaths to 46.

Two students were reported killed on Saturday in a street battle with police in another northern town, Debre Markos.

The government said it could not confirm those deaths.

Most shops in Addis Ababa remained shut on Saturday, but a few residents were out, suggesting a slow return of confidence.

Addis is a stronghold of opposition groups who accuse Meles of manipulating polls in May to stay in power. Meles denies it.

The disturbances have coincided with fresh tension with neighbouring Eritrea, Ethiopia's foe in a 1998-2000 border war.

U.N. peacekeepers have warned that military moves by both countries had produced a crisis requiring urgent attention.

On Saturday, Meles said Ethiopia was committed to resolving the border dispute through dialogue.

"But if Eritrea opts for aggression then Ethiopia is prepared to take decisive and irreversible action to smash the attack and protect its sovereignty," he said.

Meles, who flew to Germany on Saturday for a two-day meeting of African leaders, did not elaborate.

INTOLERANCE

Most analysts blame this week's bloodshed on habits of political intolerance acquired over generations of dictatorship, saying the violence resulted from a mixture of heavy-handed policing and inflammatory opposition rhetoric.

Ethiopia is struggling to shake off the effects of centuries of feudalism followed by nearly two decades of Marxism under dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, ousted in 1991 by guerrilla leader Meles Zenawi, now prime minister.

The United States, which sees sub-Saharan Africa's second most populous country as an ally against terrorism, has urged Ethiopians to turn away from violence and, in a thinly-veiled jab at the opposition, has criticised those inciting violence.

Addis was quiet but tense on Saturday, and some residents said they feared violence might break out again.

"It is quiet now but it may start again after some time," Girma Teshome, a 30-year-old engineer stocking up on food at a city market, told Reuters.

"It could be quiet for a month then erupt again."

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