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Sunday, 14 May, 2000, 21:38 GMT 22:38 UK
Ethiopia votes amid war
Queue to vote
The war has not been an election issue
Ethiopians have cast their votes in the country's second multi-party elections, amid reports of fierce fighting in the country's renewed war with Eritrea and a looming famine.

A senior opposition leader, Beyene Petros, said that police killed seven civilians protesting against what they said was electoral fraud in the south of the country; this has not been officially confirmed.

The ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which currently has an overwhelming majority at federal and regional level, is expected to retain power.

But opposition parties are likely to win some seats in urban areas and in the south of the country.

Fighting

The EPRDF is competing against 49 opposition parties and hundreds of independent candidates, but is unchallenged in roughly half the seats.


Voter
Officially a huge turnout

About 20m people registered to vote in the elections, which are for the 548-seat lower house of parliament, eight ethnically based regional councils and two city administrations.

The National Election Board said that 90% of them had cast their votes. Reporters, however, saw little evidence of a large turnout.

During the campaign, there was little mention of the real challenges facing Ethiopia - drought and the conflict with Eritrea.

Voters shot

The latest fighting, which ends a prolonged lull in the two-year conflict, resumed early on Friday, just two days before the election.

The EPRDF government, led by the Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, has denied that it launched an offensive against Eritrea to enhance its popularity in the polls.


Rural voters waiting for their turn
Rural voters wait their turn

Electoral officials said they were investigating the reports of civilian deaths in the southern Hadiya zone, where there is strong opposition to the EPRDF and there have been allegations of official intimidation.

Mr Beyene, chairman of the Southern Ethiopia People's Democratic Coalition, said that five people were killed when the police threw a grenade at a crowd outside one polling station, and two women were shot dead at another.

"It's terrible," he told the AP news agency. "What triggered the fighting is the ruling party using its agents, who pretended to be electoral officials, to fill ballot boxes with false votes.

"When people found out about this, they refused to vote, which led to a stand-off."

No international observers

The elections are the second multi-party polls since the overthrow of military rule in 1991 - after which Eritrea broke away from Ethiopia to form a new state.

But it is the first time that most of the opposition parties have been willing to take part.


EPRDF truck
The EPRDF: In power and likely to stay there

No international observers were allowed to witness the voting, unlike Ethiopia's first general election in May 1995; officials said it was a matter of sovereignty.

But both the election board and the local human rights organisation said they would issue reports next week.

The authorities had initially said that first results might be known as early as Monday, but are now saying that this is unlikely.

The official results are due out on 7 June.

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See also:

14 May 00 | Africa
Ethiopia goes to the polls
13 May 00 | Africa
Call to end Horn war
11 May 00 | Africa
EU presses for Horn peace deal
03 Nov 99 | Africa
Ethiopia's waiting game
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