Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has accused a little known Muslim extremist group of staging a wave of church burnings to provoke communal tensions in the Horn of Africa country. Meles expressed concern about regional instability, but dismissed the possibility of a North African-style popular uprising in Ethiopia.
Meles says he is aware of attempts to end the ruling party’s nearly 20 years in power, both from within and without. But in a meeting with reporters, he rejected suggestions of a people’s revolution similar to those confronting entrenched authoritarian governments in North Africa and the Middle East.
"It’s simply not possible. The circumstances for it do not exist. That does not mean some people will not try."
The prime minister did, however, express concern about the burning of dozens of churches earlier this month in a Muslim-majority area of Ethiopia’s Oromia region. Christian missionaries have told of thousands of rampaging youth torching places of worship and homes of believers.
Meles blamed an extremist sect called Kwarej for the violence.
"We believe there are some extremist groups within all of the religious institutions within the Muslim community. We believe there are elements of the Kwarej sect and other extremists who have been preaching religious intolerance in the area."
The Ethiopian leader said his government is also keeping an eye on the spread of Islamic extremist and terrorist groups elsewhere in the region. On a day of deadly clashes between police and anti-government protestors in Yemen, just across the Gulf of Aden from Ethiopia’s troubled neighbor Somalia, Meles said failure of the Yemeni state could spread insecurity across the Horn of Africa
"If the demonstrations in Yemen lead to some sort of breakdown of law and order in Yemen, this might give al-Qaida, which is based there, a good opportunity to expand. In any case it’s become a key base of support for al-Shabab."
The prime minister denied sending the Ethiopian army back to Somalia to join an offensive by government troops and African Union peacekeepers against al-Shabab, the insurgent group with ties to al-Qaida.
Ethiopian soldiers were pulled out of Somalia in 2008 after al-Shabab succeeded in turning public opinion against them as a foreign occupation force. But Meles confirmed news reports of Ethiopian involvement in clashes on the Somali side of the border.
"It’s sometimes very difficult not to be sucked in to that type of fighting when you are just sitting a few tens of meters away from a raging battle, and on the other side sits the enemy."
The joint offensive by Somali troops and the AU force known as AMISOM has dealt heavy blows to al-Shabab in recent weeks. But Meles said the reported loss of more than 50 AMISOM peacekeepers had slowed the government advance.
"I think AMISOM has lost the military momentum but I do not believe it is a spent force."
Meles also predicted explosions in the strategic neighboring city-state of Djibouti ahead of next month’s presidential election. He accused Ethiopia’s regional arch-rival Eritrea of supplying explosives to radical elements in an attempt to foment instability in Djibouti. But he said despite recent demonstrations by Djiboutian opposition forces, he was "not particularly worried" about an uprising of the type seen in Yemen or Egypt.