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Ethiopia Opposition Rethinks Election Campaign After Candidate Killed

Ethiopia's main opposition bloc is reconsidering whether to contest the May parliamentary elections following brutal attacks on two candidates, one of them fatal. Opposition leaders are blaming Ethiopia's ruling party for inflaming passions in the tense Tigray region, where the attacks occurred.

Arena-Tigray Party leader Gebru Asrat says candidate for parliament Aregawi Gebreyohannes was stabbed to death by intruders in his home in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

Gebru says another Arena-Tigray candidate was badly beaten Monday by armed men in another part of the northern Ethiopian region. He says both men had recently been arrested in connection with their political activities.

Arena-Tigray is part of an eight-party coalition known as Medrek, considered the main opposition challenging the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front in the May 23rd elections. Tigray, in northern Ethiopia, is the home ground of the EPRDF, whose forerunner, the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front, or TPLF, seized power in Addis Ababa in a 1991 coup.

In a telephone interview, Gebru called the attacks part of an EPRDF campaign of intimidation. He says politically-motivated violence and intimidation could make it impossible for Medrek to complete in the elections.

"We have to consider seriously whether we are going to participate," Gebru said. "Because this is not an election. This is just war. War against us."

Ruling party spokesman Hailemariam Dessalegn, however, categorically rejected suggestions the attacks were politically motivated. He says police have determined the murdered opposition politician was killed in a bar room fight.

"He has got a bar and when they were drinking, they quarreled," Hailemariam said. "That's a personal case. The guy killed him. He has nothing to do with the EPRDF. And that guy the police has arrested him... and it's nothing to do with politics."

Hailemariam says the other injured Arena-Tigray candidate had been involved in a political disagreement, but denied the culprit had been an EPRDF member.

Tigrayans, an ethnic minority in the north, make up about six percent of Ethiopia's population, but comprise the majority of the EPRDF's decision-making inner circle. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who is seeking re-election from his Tigrayan birthplace, celebrated the TPLF's anniversary last month with a speech in which he was reported to have urged supporters to "fight the enemy".

Siye Abraha, a former senior TPLF leader who served as EPRDF's first defense minister, is now a Medrek leader and a opposition candidate for parliament in Tigray. He called the prime minister's speech "inflammatory."

"As head of the ruling party, and head of the government, he's supposed to give a clear constructive guidance," Siye said. "But instead he's trying to portray the opposition as people out for insurrection, or enemies of peace. No, we are not enemies of peace, we are responsible citizens who care about peace and stability in our country."

Ruling party spokesman Hailemariam disputed Siye's characterization of the prime minister's speech. He described Mr. Meles's remarks as simply an attempt to rally the ruling party's base.

The spokesman accused the opposition of making wild allegations to get international attention.

More than 29 million people are registered for the election. It will be the first since the disputed 2005 poll, which ended in violent demonstrations that led to the deaths of hundreds of demonstrators and several police officers.

The European Union is considering sending an observer team to monitor the vote, but none of the four main U.S. election observer groups is coming.