Ethiopia's government is implicating a senior opposition leader in the politically-motivated killing of a police officer.  The opposition leader described the allegation as a 'desperation tactic' indicating the ruling party may be in trouble in Ethiopia's most populous region.

Government Communications Minister Bereket Simon says a local official in opposition leader Merera Gudina's Oromo People's Congress party (OPC) arranged the killing of a policeman in hopes of inciting violence in the politically tense Oromia region. The officer was stabbed to death last Saturday in the Ilulagan district of Oromia.

Speaking to reporters, Bereket said three suspects had confessed to the killing and told police they had been been promised protection from Merera if they were caught.

"The alleged killers have been apprehended, they have told their stories that a certain person called Mengesha who works as a subordinate to Dr. Merera ordered them to take this punitive measure, and that same person has assured the perpetrators to be confident that Dr. Merera will talk and make sure they are released," he said.

The police officer's death is one of several killings attributed to political tensions in Oromia ahead of this month's elections for parliament.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has warned any violations of a recently passed electoral code of conduct could result in prosecution after the election, but Bereket declined to speculate on whether Merera would be charged.

Reached by cell phone in western Oromia, where he is campaigning, Merera called the allegation an 'outright lie' designed to divert attention from what he called the ruling party's own crimes. He questioned how the killing of one policeman would bring his party to power.

Merera said the main opposition bloc, Medrek had filed more than a hundred complaints against the ruling party on charges ranging from murder to harassment of candidates.

"I have reported to the elections board, telling them about 101 incidents about Oromia," he said.  "The government is frightened that millions of Oromos probably will vote against it, and it is isolated from the Oromo people, and the government is trying to make Merera a culprit."

Merera predicted opposition parties would win in Oromia if the election is fair. He said the charge that the OPC was involved in murder is a sign of the ruling party's desperation in Ethiopia's largest region, which elects nearly 1/3 of the parliament.

Government spokesman Bereket, however, said the ruling party is confident of winning in Oromia and nationwide.

"The government this level of development doesn't need any coercive measures to be elected. The balance of power is skewed in favor of the ruling party in any form," said Bereket. "Regarding democratic process, people have their own take. They know for sure the future lies with this government."

Bereket also confirmed that the government has denied requests from foreign embassies for permission to send diplomats to observe polling stations on election day. Embassies have also been advised to inform the foreign ministry of any staff travel outside Addis Ababa during the election period.  

A US embassy spokesman says the restrictions are line with an advisory issued last month cautioning Americans about traveling in Ethiopia. The advisory noted past elections had featured violence throughout the political season, especially in the days and weeks following announcement of the results. Voting is set for May 23. Results are to be announced June 21.