Saturday, February 18, 2006

Free Oppositions Leaders on Bail, EU Urges Meles Zenawi

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said he was committed to talk with the opposition, but he did not agree to free its jailed leaders on bail, a senior EU official said after meeting him on Friday.

European Union Development Commissioner Louis Michel was speaking at the end of a two-day visit to Ethiopia, where opposition leaders are among 131 people charged with treason and planning to commit genocide.

Michel met both Meles and jailed opposition leaders, including Hailu Shewal, chairman of the main opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD).

"These are signs of flexibility and signs of good will on the part of the government," European Union Development Commissioner Louis Michel told a news conference.

He said that while he had "no positive answer" to his suggestion Meles release the prisoners on bail Meles "confirmed to me that international legal observers will be welcomed at the trial ... he also told me that the trial could be speeded up."

Western donors have withheld direct budget aid to impoverished Ethiopia, sub-Saharan Africa's second most populous country, over a crackdown on the opposition and media after disputed parliamentary elections last May 15.

The government arrested thousands of opposition members and others after two bouts of violence struck the capital, in July and November. At least 82 people were killed in clashes.

Meles accused the opposition of plotting to incite violence, through street demonstrations, to topple him.

The CUD and other opposition parties which gained parliamentary seats in the vote have accused the government of vote fraud and intimidation. The CUD says the charges against its leaders are politically motivated.

Michel said Hailu, a known diabetic, and the other opposition leaders told him they did not support any attempt to overthrow the government.

Michel said Meles assured him the government was committed to dialogue and that he had already started discussions with members of the opposition in parliament.

"All the people I met here realize that there is no alternative to sincere political dialogue to break the current deadlock," the commissioner said.

Michel urged the government to put in place confidence-building measures and made clear he wanted to see parliamentary, judicial and media reforms.

Michel's earlier spokesman expressed concern about Hailu's health after the commissioner met him on Thursday.

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