ADDIS ABABA (AFP) — Senior military officers in Ethiopia, including a general, had plotted to assassinate top government officials, Communications Minister Bereket Simon said Friday, adding that 40 people were under arrest.
“While six of the suspects were army officers on active duty, including one general, 34 of the suspects were ex-army men expelled from the army on grounds of misconduct,” he told a press conference.
Bereket said the plotters belonged to the Ginbot 7 (May 15) opposition group, saying it was linked to the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) headed by Berhanu Nega, currently living in the United States.
He said the government believed that the “desperado” group was not planning to stage a coup, but intended “assassinating individuals, high ranking government officials and destroying some public facilities and utilities … like telecom services and electricity utilities.
“The police have also found evidence implicating some ex-CUD members released on pardon. With the exception of some three or four of the desperado group who are still at large, the police have arrested almost all members of the conspiracy.”
Berekt told AFP the government knew about the plot from its inception, adding, “If there had been laxity from the government, there would have been problems.”
The mass arrests were reported on Sunday by state media, which said the National Security Taskforce had also found weapons including bombs, computers and communications equipment, military uniforms and documents.
The CUD won an unprecedented number of seats in the May 15, 2005 elections, which the European Union and other observers said fell short of international standards.
Around 200 people died in violence that erupted after the CUD accused the party of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of rigging the ballot.
Berhanu, 51, currently a university professor in the United States, was elected mayor of Addis Ababa in the polls. He was subsequently jailed for two years along with other leaders of the CUD, and left the country after his release.
Ethiopia’s next general election is scheduled to be held in June 2010.
In a statement on its website following the initial reports of arrests Ginbot 7 said it “has no desire to engage in a tit-for-tat with the dictators in Addis Ababa, nor the time to waste replying to baseless accusations by a regime that rules Ethiopia by the barrel of the gun.”
“Ginbot 7 remains committed to work for the establishment of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law in Ethiopia. No amount of scurrilous accusations, threats or blackmail by the regime will deter us from pursuing the cause of democracy and freedom,” it added.
Bereket said evidence showed the plotters aimed “to create conducive conditions for large scale chaos and havoc. ”
“Assassinating people was intended as a preliminary measure” to street actions similar to those of 2005, he charged.
“Berhanu Nega is the mastermind, he’s deeply involved in it, and he’s not anyway vehemently denying it. Nega has been saying that anything that can be done to bring down this government is welcome.”
The minister said some of those arrested were “disgruntled” at reforms launched in the army.
“Our army is in a very good shape,” he asserted, saying it was “based on democratic and constitutional values.”
Bereket said preparations were under way to prosecute the “suspected terrorists” and a court hearing was planned for May 11.