Relatives of two prominent exiled Ethiopian politicians are among 35 people jailed in connection with an alleged plot to overthrow Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government. Ethiopians shocked by news of the arrests are scrambling to learn the identities of the accused plotters and details of their alleged crimes.
Ethiopian officials say they had nothing to add to a statement issued Saturday announcing the arrest of 35 alleged members of Ginbot Seven, an opposition group based outside the country.
Ginbot Seven, or May 15th, is the date of Ethiopia's disputed 2005 election. The group's leader, Berhanu Nega, is a charismatic politician who was elected mayor of Addis Ababa in that election. He was arrested afterward, convicted of treason, and sentenced to life in prison along with more than 100 other opposition leaders. All were later pardoned.
Berhanu now lives in the United States, where he is an economics professor at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.
Saturday's government statement said security forces had foiled a terror network formed by Berhanu to wage armed struggle against the government. Spokesman Ermias Legesse said a search of suspects' homes had revealed a cache of weapons, military uniforms and a plan of attack.
In a telephone interview Monday, Berhanu confirmed that Ginbot Seven's aim is to overthrow the government by any means possible.
"Our position is very clear from the beginning. This is an illegal government. This government is in power by coup de etat in 2005. This government has usurped power by force and therefore any mechanism to get rid of an illegitimate tyranny is legitimate as far as we are concerned," he said.
Ethiopian media said those arrested included an active duty army general, Teferra Mamo, said to be leader of Ginbot Seven's military wing. The only other suspect identified was Melaku Tefera, an organizer for the opposition Unity for Democracy and Justice party.
Melaku was among the opposition leaders convicted of treason and later pardoned following the 2005 election. He now joins UDJ leader Birtukan Mideksa, who was re-arrested earlier this year and ordered to serve out her life sentence.
Berhanu Nega says he had been told the accused included a cousin of his living in Addis Ababa, and the 80-year old father of Tsige Andargachew, an exiled Ginbot Seven official living in Britain.
Berhanu told VOA security forces had surrounded his parents' Addis Ababa home and confiscated their cellphones. "This is a government that accuses your relatives for what you do. Whatever it is that you do. That is why Ato (Mr.) Tsige Andargachew's father is in prison. Maybe my cousin is in prison for the same reason," he said.
Several Ethiopian opposition figures expressed concern over the arrests. Parliament Member Bulcha Demeksa agreed that Ginbot Seven would be considered an illegal organization under Ethiopian law, but he expressed skepticism about the reports of a coup plot.
"I honestly believe this is not true. The government of Ethiopia has used such accusations so many times to make it a reason to arrest people ... The election approaching. Anybody who could be a viable candidate for an opposition party will be caught by this net," he said.
A government spokesman said he was busy in meetings but said told VOA further details of the arrests and the coup plot would be forthcoming in the next few days. He declined to speculate on what charges might be filed against those detained, but said the suspects would soon be brought before a judge to hear the charges read.