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Ethiopia Detains Oromo Opposition Members

The Ethiopian government has confirmed the detention of scores of citizens suspected of involvement in a regional insurgent movement. From the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, VOA's Peter Heinlein reports opposition lawmakers and human rights activists are calling the detentions illegal.

A senior Ethiopian government official confirmed to VOA that an unspecified number of persons described as 'operatives of the Oromo Liberation Front' have been detained by authorities in recent weeks.

Bereket Simon, a top adviser to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, said "the government has an obligation to put these people under control."

The official's comments were in response to charges by a prominent Member of Parliament from the Oromia region that at least 107 people, and probably many more, are being held illegally by authorities without charge.

Bulcha Demeksa, a lawmaker from the opposition Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement party, said some of the detainees have been held for weeks.

The Oromo people are Ethiopia's largest ethnic group, about a third of the population, and the Oromia region has been a hotbed of opposition to the government in Addis Ababa. But in a VOA interview, lawmaker Bulcha Demeksa rejected suggestions that those detained were terrorists or were involved in a plot to overthrow the government.

"These are people who live in the countryside, miserably poor people, they eat once a day, they have nothing, they have no guns, they are just some in little urban areas. They are traders," said Bulcha. "Some of them are street people. What can they do? The government knows that Ethiopians are not armed. Ethiopians are not armed, so these cannot be feared. Fear I do not believe at all. There is nothing to fear."

Bulcha says the detentions are an attempt by the government to intimidate potential political opponents in advance of next January's local elections.

"The purpose in my opinion of these mass arrests is to scare people because local election is coming up in January," said Bulcha. "The government is scaring people, saying, 'If you do not support the government, you will go to jail. If you do not vote for the regional government, nobody else can help you, we will put you in jail.' Particulary, people who are potential representatives are being arrested."

The government spokesman, Bereket Simon, rejected Bulcha's charges. He told VOA, "the rights of the citizens are being respected." He described the accusations as "far-fetched stories" designed to grab headlines at a time when domestic and international attention is focusing on Ethiopia's grand celebration of the millennium.

Ethiopia follows the Julian calendar, which is seven years and eight months behind the more commonly observed Gregorian calendar. The Horn of Africa nation will celebrate the arrival of the third millennium on September 12.