Ethiopia in chaos as police kill 22 during protests

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The Independent Online

Addis Ababa is in a state of emergency after Ethiopian police killed 22 and arrested 600 anti-government demonstrators in clashes that threaten to destroy one of Africa's most stable countries. Gunfire echoed across the city yesterday when protesters clashed with security forces who had been ordered to disband all protests and demonstrations.

Addis Ababa is in a state of emergency after Ethiopian police killed 22 and arrested 600 anti-government demonstrators in clashes that threaten to destroy one of Africa's most stable countries. Gunfire echoed across the city yesterday when protesters clashed with security forces who had been ordered to disband all protests and demonstrations.

After several hours of fighting, schools, churches and offices decided to send their staff home and close their doors. Traders at the Mercato, Africa's biggest market, decided to close during business hours as the city fell apart. Taxi drivers went on strike, sending text messages urging each other to switch off their engines and stay at home. The government tried to organise bus services but with no success.

One resident said: "There was a lot of chaos and shots fired earlier in the day but now there's a deathly calm like early Sunday morning. The taxis have stopped running, all shops are closed. We are holding our breath and waiting."

Two foreign radio stations, Voice of America and Deutsche Welle, were yesterday taken off the air for broadcasting critical reports - most Ethiopians now have to rely on state-controlled stations for news.

Yesterday, those stations broadcast warnings in Amharic, saying: "With effect from today, especially after the issuance of this statement, the police and security forces will take stern action against those shouting in groups, trying to cause destruction of government and people's property and piling stones on the roads and trying to disrupt peaceful and legal movement of the people." This week's violence is a culmination of the tension simmering in Addis Ababa since the general elections held on 15 May.

More than 90 per cent of voters turned out to cast their ballots in the country's third multi-party elections, but optimism over the nascent democracy was overshadowed by allegations of electoral fraud, intimidation and vote-rigging.

The ruling party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) was always expected to win a third term, but many voters hoped, for the first time, it would work with opposition parties to create a more pluralistic government.

Instead, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, a leading member of Tony Blair's Commission for Africa, has been accused of clinging to power through electoral fraud. The election results will not be announced until 8 July, more than six weeks after the ballots were collected, and election monitors are dismayed that ballot boxes have disappeared and counts are held in secret. Voters in Addis Ababa had voted overwhelmingly in support of the main opposition party, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) and see the government's refusal to acknowledge the election results as an example of unwillingness to listen to its people.

Mr Zenawi himself did nothing to reassure voters after the elections; instead of promising to respect the results, he banned all public demonstrations and took control of the country's security forces and police.

On Monday, students at Addis Ababa university defied the ban and held peaceful demonstrations to complain about election fraud and vote-rigging. The police opened fire, killing one girl and arresting 500 students. Unrest spilled over into the rest of the city yesterday as protesters came out in sympathy with the students.

The violence threatens to plunge Ethiopia back into the kind of civil war that precipitated the infamous famine of 1984 and undo two decades of democratisation.

Mr Zenawi had been hailed as the country's saviour after his rebel group overthrew the brutal Marxist regime run by Haile Mengistu in 1991 but Ethiopians have become disillusioned with his autocratic rule. Yesterday, the government issued an official statement accusing the opposition of inciting violence and warned: "these destructive forces who wish to plunge our country into terminal crisis ... would not be exempt from the firm hand of the law."

The words have chilled Ethiopians who remember similar communiqués being issued by the Derg regime which ruled Ethiopia with a rod of iron from 1975 to 1991.

In the name of national security, Mengistu killed thousands of government opponents and cut off food and medical supplies to parts of the country which criticised him.

His tactics created the famine of 1984 and sparked off the support for LiveAid.

When Mr Zenawi came to power in 1991, Ethiopians hoped their country would finally shake off its image as the world's biggest begging bowl and rediscover its self-respect and national pride.

But, 14 years later, Ethiopia is still one of the poorest in the world and the government has not managed to reform the agricultural sector to feed its population. Four million people still receive food aid and, on Tuesday, the US promised $674m (£335m) for famine relief in Ethiopia and Eritrea. During the general elections, CUD campaigned on a platform of economic and land reform, promising to end Ethiopia's reliance on foreign aid.

CUD also criticised the ethnic composition of the ruling party - EPRDF is dominated by Tigrayans who are from northern Ethiopia, and who were brutally suppressed during the the Derg regime.

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