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Ethiopia Denies Coup Plot, Calls 40 Detainees 'Desperadoes'

Ethiopian officials say 40 people arrested over the past week had been plotting a campaign of assassinations and strategic bombings aimed at disrupting public order. Most of the suspects are said to be current or former army officers.

Ethiopia's communications minister Bereket Simon Friday attempted to reverse earlier claims that the government had foiled an attempted coup led by an exiled political leader living in the United States.

Speaking to foreign journalists, Bereket denied the suspects were part of a coup plot. He described those arrested as 'desperadoes" intent on creating havoc.

The intention of these people was not to conduct coups d'etat. We're not implicating them (in) coups d'etat. We know this desperado group was intending to assassinate people and demolish public utilities and that was intended to attack, the attack was intended on the government.

The initial statement announcing the arrest of the first 35 suspects in the case identified them as members of 'Ginbot 7', or 'May 15th', the date of Ethiopia's disputed 2005 election. Ginbot 7 was founded by Berhanu Nega, who was elected mayor of Addis in that election, but later convicted of treason and sentenced to life in prison along with more than 100 other opposition leaders in connection with post-election violence.

Berhanu fled Ethiopia after the opposition leaders were pardoned in 2007. He currently is an economics professor in the U..S state of Pennsylvania. In a VOA interview this week, he reaffirmed Ginbot 7's commitment to removing Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government by any means necessary.

He also accused the government of attempting to punish him and other exiled Ginbot 7 leaders by harassing and arresting their relatives still living in Ethiopia.

Communications Minister Bereket Friday suggested the plot was mainly the work of disgruntled current and former military officers, led by an active duty army general. He said the plot was aimed at creating havoc by assassinating government officials and blowing up power plants and other strategic installations as a means of paving the way for 'street actions' such as those that broke out following the 2005 elections.

"Berhanu Nega had been engaged in such activities after the May election. They are also thinking if they know they cannot use the army to conduct coups, but they think they can repeat the street actions we have seen in 2005, so taking a series of assassination attempts, they were attempting to create a favorable ground for such street actions," he said.

Bereket described the tactic as 'terror politics'. While rejecting the use of the term 'coup', he described the goal as the violent overthrow of the government. "They have tried the constitutional means, they failed, and yet they didn't get satisfied with that, and they went out and started declaring armed struggle as a way of overthrowing the constitutionally formed government. So yes, it is terrorist politics, that is not deniable I think," he said.

Bereket said the government would consider asking for the extradition of Berhanu Nega and other exiled Ginbot 7 leaders. Failing that, they might be tried in absentia.

A U.S. embassy spokesperson called the question of extradition 'hypothetical', noting that the United States does not have an extradition treaty with Ethiopia.

Former Ethiopian president Negaso Gidada, now an opposition member of parliament, said regardless of whether or not there was a plot to overthrow the government, the arrests expose widespread public skepticism that elections can express the will of the voters.

"For sure there is not a democratic opening. There is suffocation politically, there will be people who are fed up of the situation and choose to go in a different way, either to armed resistance or coup d'etat and so forth, and as long as the political atmosphere is not open , not democratic there will always be an possibility they will try to solve the situation through armed struggle," he said.

Identities of most of those arrested have not been made public, with the exception of the army general said to have been the head of Ginbot 7's military wing, and a mid-level opposition political activist who was among those imprisoned following the 2005 protests. Authorities say all the accused were brought before a judge over the past week, and were remanded to custody for another 14 days to give prosecutors time to formulate charges against them.