The Obama administration is signaling its intention to keep Ethiopia as a key strategic partner, despite concerns about the country's slide toward authoritarianism. The United States is seeking to expand development assistance to the Ethiopian government.

Deputy Secretary of State Jacob Lew is making his first trip to East Africa  at a time of increasing regional instability.

The United States last week announced it had sent a $10-million shipment of weapons to help shore up the besieged government of Somalia, while accusing neighboring Eritrea of being behind violence aimed at undermining the Somali peace process.

Regional power Ethiopia sent troops in 2006 to prop up the fragile government in Mogadishu, but pulled them out earlier this year, and has expressed a reluctance to return without strong backing from the international community.

Secretary Lew's stop in Addis Ababa included an hour-long talk with Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.  Afterward, he told reporters the United States sees Ethiopia as an important strategic ally.

"The deep relationship between the United States and Ethiopia is based on a number of shared values, shared concerns," said Lew.  "The strategic relationship remains a very important one, and we value it.  I think it is mutually valued by the government of Ethiopia and the government of the United States." 

"So I think we look to a future where we will be able to continue to work together not on just fighting common forces in the world that we think are a threat to each of us, but on a broader agenda where we can make a lasting difference in the quality of life in the life of the Ethiopian people, and by analogy people in many other countries to which we provide foreign assistance," he added.

The United States last year gave more than $1 billion in aid to Ethiopia, most of it in emergency food assistance, and practically all the rest in programs to fight HIV/AIDS and Malaria.  Lew says the Obama administration is looking to broaden the program to include development aid.

"The form assistance that has become the predominant form of assistance is provision of emergency food supplies," he said. "We think there need to be increased resources available and an increased share of resources going into sustainable development."

While maintaining the deep bilateral relationship, Secretary Lew says the Obama administration is worried about what is seen as a "closing of political space" in Ethiopia since the controversial 2005 elections.  During his talk with Prime Minister Meles, Lew says he made a point of raising the issue of imprisoned Ethiopian opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa.

"I reinforced our concern that the matter  be resolved quickly and finally," he said.

Lew says he also expressed concern about two laws recently passed by Ethiopia's parliament, one restricting activities of foreign-funded non-governmental organizations, the other limiting press freedom.

"The concerns we raised were the issues of openness that relate to NGOs and freedom of expression remain concerns to us," he said. "We made that point clear again."

Lew said his discussions with Prime Minister Meles also touched on a proposed new anti-terrorism law.  The group Human Rights Watch issued a statement Tuesday saying the draft law could define criticism of the government as a "terrorist act" and be used to crack down on the opposition.