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Addis Ababa Denies Bias Against US Democracy Groups Expelled from Ethiopia

Ethiopia says it had every right to expel three U.S.-funded democracy groups from the country late last month, because the groups were not in compliance with the law. The response comes as two of the groups, in a letter to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, questioned the credibility and transparency of next month's parliamentary elections.

A spokesman for the Ethiopian Information Ministry, Zemedkun Tekle, says as far as the government is concerned, it acted within the law when it expelled the three American organizations on March 30.

"The reason of their expulsion is that they had not registered legally to monitor these elections," he says.

The three groups, National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, had been in Ethiopia since January to assist in preparing for May 15 elections.

The groups are funded by the United States to promote democracy and good governance around the world.

All three groups have acknowledged that they were not registered with the Ethiopian government at the time of the expulsions. But they say that the government failed to respond to requests for the necessary accreditations, even though they applied for them back in January.

The Bush administration says that other non-governmental groups working in Ethiopia on the elections were also not able to register.

On Friday, the chairwoman of the National Democratic Institute, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and the chairman of the International Republican Institute, Senator John McCain, sent a letter of complaint to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, whose ruling party faces tough competition at the polls.

The letter expressed deep concern about the expulsions, noting that no other government in the world had ever expelled the groups before. The letter warned that the move would reflect negatively on the Ethiopian government's promise to hold open and democratic elections.

Ms. Albright and Senator McCain asked the Ethiopian leader to reconsider and allow the three groups to resume their work in Ethiopia.

Parliamentary polls in May will mark the third time Ethiopia has held elections since Prime Minister Meles took power in a military coup in 1991. But this is the first time they are taking place amid international scrutiny.

Fifty two election observers from the European Union arrived in the capital, Addis Ababa, on Friday to prepare the way for a larger team of more than 100 EU observers.

But opposition leaders, who accuse the government of not providing a level playing field in the elections, say the number of observers is not nearly enough to monitor voting in 38,000 polling stations across the country.

Prime Minister Meles' Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front Party has won previous elections by overwhelming margins. The ruling party and its allies currently hold 519 of 548 seats in the federal parliament.