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Challengers Face Long Odds in Bid to Unseat Ethiopian Rulers

With three weeks to go before Ethiopia elects a new parliament, one opposition candidate has been murdered. Another's house has been attacked with grenades. Both incidents occurred in the mountainous northern Tigray region, home of the former guerrilla fighters who seized power in Ethiopia 19 years ago. The heroes of the revolution are facing their first real challenge on their home turf.

Standing in front of his rural mountaintop home, a 15 minute walk from the nearest road, Ayale Beyene, 28, shows visiting journalists the scars left by a grenade thrown at the house a few nights earlier. He speaks in his native Tigrinya with an interpreter.

"I had just arrived home and heard a loud explosion outside the door. My parents and I were afraid. When my brother went outside, he found a second unexploded bomb," said Ayale.

The damage was minimal, but Ayale says the grenades were just the latest incident of harassment and intimidation he has faced since becoming a candidate for parliament from the opposition Arena Tigray party.

"Local officials detained me twice for several hours. They took my identification and my campaign materials and accused me of being an Eritrean agent. When they let me go, they wouldn't give back my ID," he added.

While Ayale spoke, a team from the government-run Ethiopian Human Rights Commission arrived to investigate the attack. They promised to issue their findings in a week.

The commission earlier released a report on the murder of another Arena Tigray candidate, Aregawi Gebreyohannes, who was stabbed to death at a bar operated by his family in the town of Shire.

Arena party officials allege the killers were agents of the ruling Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) sent to silence the voice of a rising star in the opposition movement. The Human Rights Commission ruled the killing non-political, saying the death was the result of a bar-room brawl.

Five suspects were arrested the day after the murder. One was convicted a week later and sentenced to 15 years in prison. But the victim's brother, Alem Gebreyohannes says the police investigation and the Human Rights Commission report are part of a government coverup.

Speaking in Amharic through an interpreter, Alem said the fight that killed his brother was staged.

This was not an ordinary killing. The police didn't try to find out what's behind it. What the witnesses said and what's in the police report are totally different. Then the Human Rights Commission investigated and said there's no political link.

Tigray, and the ruling TPLF, have known adversity. From its origin as a Marxist guerrilla force in the 1970s, the TPLF waged an armed struggle that toppled the Dergue regime of Soviet-backed dictator Mengistu Hailemariam in a 1991 coup.

Tigray was later the frontline state in Ethiopia's war with Eritrea, in which 70,000 people died. While the region comprises only 6% of Ethiopia's population, 30% of the war dead were Tigrayans.

Roughly 19 years after coming to power, TPLF cadres still dominate the country's decision-making executive committee and the senior ranks of the army. Its top leaders include Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin.

But a 2001 split divided the party. Several senior leaders were ousted. Two years ago a group of them formed Arena Tigray to challenge the TPLF's monopoly on power.

Abadi Zemo was among the early TPLF fighters. He lost an arm in the war against the Dergue. Now vice-president of the Tigray region, Abadi says allegations of ruling party complicity in Aregawi Gebreyohannes's death are smear tactics by a desperate opposition.

"This person Aregawi, people know under what circumstances he was killed. It's been proved. Why are they using this as an issue? Just to make their agenda with false [allegations] and blackmail," said Abadi.

Abadi predicts the TPLF will win big in its homeland. He says Tigrayans still remember and revere the heroes of the revolution that overthrew the hated Dergue regime.

But former TPLF military commander and Ethiopian defense minister Siye Abraha sees things differently. He is running this time in the opposition ranks.

Siye admits the TPLF and its regional allies have a tight grip on power, making them virtually unbeatable. But he says an overwhelming ruling party victory might ironically weaken it, as voters recognize that 19-years of uninterrupted rule is turning Ethiopia into a de facto one-party state.