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Ethiopia Bans Demonstrations After Opposition Claims Widespread Ballot Fraud

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has banned all demonstrations in the capital, Addis Ababa, and its surrounding areas for one month, following Sunday's nationwide balloting, which the opposition has already claimed fraudulent.

Prime Minister Meles' announcement on national television late Sunday surprised many Ethiopians, who had come out in their millions earlier in the day to vote in a hotly contested election between Mr. Meles' ruling party and a coalition of opposition parties.

The Ethiopian leader said that, in addition to the month-long ban on demonstrations, he was also assuming direct control of police and other security forces to ensure post-election peace and stability.

Throughout the day Sunday, the main opposition group, Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), and other opposition leaders bitterly complained that officials and supporters of the ruling Ethiopian People's Democratic Front were rigging votes and interfering at polling stations, especially in the capital. The opposition's popularity had been rising in recent weeks in Addis Ababa among the city's two million people.

CUD campaign manager, Birhanu Nega, said he believes the prime minister's announcements reflect the government's growing nervousness over what may happen if widespread fraud is found to have occurred. "He came out and declared a state of emergency before one polling station has been counted. I mean, it's just incredible," he said.

The government denies it tried to interfere in any way with the election process. Officials say the ban on demonstrations is a precaution being taken in case the opposition decides to reject the results and agitate for violence.

CUD's Mr. Nega says his group intends to wait for a more complete vote count from polling stations before making a decision on whether to boycott the results.

Sunday's ballot was the third since Prime Minister Meles and his party took power in Ethiopia 14 years ago and the first to deploy international observers. Among them were 150 observers from the European Union and 50 from the U.S.-based Carter Center, led by former President Jimmy Carter.

The observers say they saw no serious problems at the polling stations they visited, adding that the voting went smoothly and the turnout was extremely high. The observers estimate that 85 percent of the 25 million registered voters came out to vote.

Preliminary results are expected later this month and the official tally is due to be announced June 8.

The elections are being watched closely in Washington as a test of Ethiopia's commitment to introducing full-fledged democracy. The Horn of African country has been a key U.S. ally in a region where Muslim extremists are believed to be hiding and planning new attacks.