Electoral body hits back at EU

Ethiopia's electoral body hit back at the EU observer mission on Monday, rejecting its claim that the recently concluded national polls were not free and fair.

"This is totally unfair," Kemal Bedri, head of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia, said. "I am disappointed and surprised at the vehemence directed at the electoral board by the European Union election team."

He said the 160-strong team, led by EU parliamentarian Ana Gomes, had overstepped its mandate and sided with opposition parties.

"This report could not have been any better if it had been drafted by the opposition," Kemal said.

Gomes flew out of Ethiopia hours after presenting her 10-page report on Thursday. She is expected to return to Ethiopia on 23 September to present the final report on the 15 May poll.

She said Ethiopia's election - the third in the country's history - had been marred by irregularities in key areas and "did not live up to international standards". She said investigations into complaints were biased in favour of the ruling party, while opposition leaders and supporters were harassed and jailed.

Gomes also said delayed elections on 21 August in Ethiopia's Somali Region were "poorly organised and marred by serious irregularities".

However Kemal said, "We did everything we could to make sure these elections were free and fair and believe that they were."

The EU is one of Ethiopia's largest donors, funding food aid and development programmes worth more than 400 million euros (US $490.9 million) every year.

In a statement released on Friday, the EU said its mission's report on the postelection period was "balanced and impartial".

It added: "While the EU notes continuing issues of concern, including the respect for human rights and balanced access to the media, the EU regards the elections as an important step forward in the democratisation process."

Human rights groups claim 42 people were killed by security forces in June when hundreds took to the streets in protest of alleged fraud by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's ruling party, which won a majority of seats in the country's 547-member parliament.

Meanwhile, in a statement released in the state media on Saturday, the Ethiopian Ministry of Information said the EU election observers had "contributed" to the protests that broke out in the capital, Addis Ababa.

"The mission, against the regulations of its tasks as an observer, illegally and secretly leaked unfounded information to the opposition, which gave them confidence wrongly so as to lead them to violence in the streets," it said.

"The government, time and again, criticised the [EU] mission for its contribution to the eruption of the June violence and it is believed that the present report of the mission has also been intended simply to cover its mistakes," it added.