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Monday, November 14, 2005

Ethiopians Look for Jailed Relatives

CNN -- ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) -- Each day hundreds of women gather at the offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross offices in the Ethiopian capital, some holding photos or identification cards of husbands and sons.

An unknown number of Ethiopians, most of them men, were arrested during political violence two weeks ago, in which police clashed with demonstrators and at least 46 people died. Between Friday and Saturday police released 4,138 people, but many were believed still in custody.

The violence began November 1 amid protests over a disputed May 15 election.

Zinash Kebede, pain clearly etched into her face, was searching for her younger brother, seized by police in a late night raid in the first days of the violence and not heard from him since.

Across the city armed police have made late night raids on houses in a massive crackdown. Young men, some barefoot, being marched through the city to police stations became a familiar sight.

"I have no idea where he is or what condition he is in," the 30-year-old Zinash said, tears running down her cheeks. "He has just disappeared."

Women, wrapped in traditional white cloaks to keep out the morning chill, nod to show their circumstances are similar.

Many have searched the hospital morgues. Often the Red Cross visit proves fruitless. Inundated each day by hundreds of people, the Red Cross has to turn some away, telling them to return later.

The Red Cross is one of the few organization in Ethiopia allowed prison visits. Families hope by handing over names they may be able to track down relatives.

Information Minister Berhan Hailu says the mass arrests were justified to restore order to the capital. Calm has returned, although the heavily armed police and troops may have had more to do with that than the arrests.

"More people will be released, but the police have to screen them first," Berhan said. "The police are trying their best to release people, but obviously this takes time."
Aid donors worried

Ethiopia is seen by the West as a key ally in the Horn of Africa, an area blighted by famine and war that U.S. officials believe is a haven for terrorists.

But the violence and arrests have alarmed the international donors who support the country.

Ethiopia is Africa's largest recipient of aid, and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi acknowledged on Wednesday that the bloodshed had tarnished the country's image, but laid the blame squarely at the door of the main opposition party, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy.

Its leaders have been arrested and are facing treason charges, a charge they reject.

In the early 1990s, Meles was feted by Western leaders, who viewed him as a progressive reformer. Now Meles, 49, is struggling to preserve his democratic credentials.

Both the U.S and European Union have called for detainees to be released. They are also among a number of countries who have announced they will be reviewing aid, although few are expected to announce any cuts. The World Bank also announced a review.

Fear and anger still pervades much of the city. Many people have gone into hiding while others who have appeared on government "wanted lists" have turned themselves in to police.
Government rebuke

During the disputed May vote, the ruling party won control of nearly two-thirds of parliament. The opposition charges the vote was stolen.

Opposition parties took 176 seats out of the 547-member Council of Representatives, or lower house of parliament. That was a huge improvement over the 12 seats won during the previous elections, in 2000, and seen as a stinging rebuke a proud government that feels it delivered a population from brutal dictatorship.

Most observers agreed the result reflected disenchantment with Meles, rather than support for the untested opposition. But the roots of the recent unrest are more than political.

Most Ethiopians live in abject poverty, and complain life is not improving. Average incomes are just $100 a year.

Zinash says her 28-year-old brother did not demonstrate, but was angry about his lot.

"Sisay wants a job like many of the young men here. His future holds nothing without work," she said.

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