Page last updated at 10:10 GMT, Tuesday, 13 September 2005 11:10 UK

Ethiopia PM reaches out to Oromos

By Martin Plaut
BBC, Addis Ababa

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi
Meles lost support to the opposition in May polls

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi says he is willing to open talks with the main guerrilla movement fighting his government, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).

In an interview with the BBC, he indicated that initial contacts had been made.

This is a reversal of the government's previous position which was to refuse to deal with the OLF until it laid down its arms.

This opening towards the Oromo may be the beginning of a political realignment in the country.

The Oromo are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia representing around half of its 70m people.

Fresh allies

When this government took power in 1991, by marching its troops into Addis Ababa, it formed a short-lived coalition which included the OLF.

But the movement soon fell out and the OLF began a protracted armed struggle.

Ethiopian students gathering outside a police station in Kenya (Pic: UNHCR)
Last year, hundreds of Oromos fled to Kenya, saying they were being persecuted (Pic: UNHCR)

The war has been sporadic and not very successful, although the organisation is still reported to enjoy some popular support.

In the last year the OLF has been considering whether to lay down its arms.

They have said they are prepared to meet Mr Meles without preconditions, anywhere in the world, to negotiate an amicable end to the conflict.

Now the prime minister has told the BBC he is prepared to accept this, saying: "We have no problem with it."

These remarks constitute a considerable change of direction.

May's general election saw the prime minister lose support among the Amhara, the country's traditional ruling group.

He needs to find fresh allies. Reaching out to the OLF appears to be part of that process.

Oromo youths return to Ethiopia
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Country profile: Ethiopia
27 May 03 |  Country profiles

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