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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. 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 coup d'etats," Bereket told journalists. "We're not implicating them (in) coup d' etats. 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 at Bucknell University in Pennyslvania. 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," said Bereket. "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."

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."

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," Negaso said. "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."

Identities of most of those arrested have not been made public, with the exception of the army general, Teferra Mamo, said to have been the head of Ginbot Seven'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.

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. VOA’s Peter Heinlein reports 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 Monday said 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,” said Berhanu. “This is an illegal
government. This government is in power by coup de etat in 2005. This
govern has usurped power by force and therefore any mechanism to get rid
of an illegitimate tyranny is legitimate as far as we are concerned.”

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. He was identified
as the head of Ginbot Seven’s civilian wing.

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 said Monday he had been told that 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,” he said.
“Whatever it is that you do. That is why Ato (Mr.) Tsige Andargachew’s
father is in pris on. Maybe my cousin is in prison for the same reason.”

Several Ethiopian opposition figures Monday expressed concern over the
arrests. Member of Parliament 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,” Bulcha said. “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.”

A government spokesman Monday said he was busy in meetings and could not
confirm reports of the arrest of Berhanu Nega’s cousin and Andargachew
Tsige’s father, or that Berhanu’s parents’s cellphones had been
confiscated.

The spokesman 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.


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