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Disputed Political Killings Mar Ethiopian Election Campaign

A series of campaign-related killings in Ethiopia has raised tensions and sparked a battle of allegations before May 23 parliament elections.

Opposition leaders and ruling party officials agree four people have been killed in three separate incidents in recent days in Oromia, home of Ethiopia's largest ethnic group, the Oromos. But details of the deaths are shrouded in controversy.

Two people died in a grenade attack on a rally sponsored by the Oromo regional wing of Ethiopia's ruling party. Another man was shot dead while putting up campaign posters, and a policeman was stabbed to death. State-run media headlined the police killing and the arrest of three suspects.

Government Communications Minister Bereket Simon says the killers are members of the Oromo People's Congress, which is part of Medrek, the main opposition alliance.

"They killed a policeman, they have been caught and admitted they had done it," said Bereket Simon. "They admitted they had been card carrying members of the OPC, they had been captured with their cards, the knives they used to slay the policeman."

Opposition parties condemned the killings and called for an impartial investigation. Former Ethiopian President Negasso Gidada, now a Medrek leader, said he had no clear information about the incident, but said the timing, weeks before the election, is suspicious.

"We do not believe our members [would] do this, and therefore a neutral body should clear this matter and we are ready to cooperate with legal bodies to clarify the conditions in which this happened," said Negasso Gidada.

Negasso is also calling for an independent probe into the death of a man gunned down last week while putting up campaign posters in a small rural town. Medrek officials have called it a deliberate political killing.

But Communications Minister Bereket calls the opposition account a fabrication. He says the victim was not an opposition activist, but a local official of Ethiopia's ruling party, the EPRDF.

"[This is] the usual false issue, which is appearing to divert attention from the police killing," he said. "It is another lie."

But Medrek leader Negasso rejects the government explanation. He tells VOA the victim was clearly working for the opposition.

"We know officials there say the thing happened as a personal vendetta or something," he said. "But we think it is politically motivated because he was pasting our poster when he was killed. He was campaigning for us."

The discrepancy between the two accounts is reminiscent of the death of another political activist in Oromia last month. Opposition leaders charged that a Medrek worker was beaten to death by ruling party officials after he refused to stop campaigning against them.

A government spokesman called the report "the biggest lie", and said the victim had in fact been a ruling party worker who died of complications of malaria and typhoid.

Both sides say they have evidence to back up their claims, but no independent investigations have been conducted in the cases blamed on political violence.

Ethnic identity has always been an integral part of Ethiopian politics. Oromos comprise 35 to 40 percent of Ethiopia's estimated 80 million people, but no Oromo has ruled the country. The present government is dominated by ethnic Tigrayans, who make up roughly six percent of the population.