WIRE: 04/23/2001 4:07 pm ET

INTERVIEW-Ethiopia ready to act against gangsters

Reuters-WIRE: 04/23/2001 4:07 pm ET

By William Maclean

ADDIS ABABA, April 23 (Reuters) - A senior Ethiopian government official on Monday blamed Addis Ababa's worst unrest in years on jobless youths and gangsters he said had taken advantage of student unrest to launch an orgy of theft and destruction.


Giving the government's first in-depth account of last week's violence, foreign ministry chief of staff Yemane Kidane said authorities would now crack down on criminal gangs he said were growing in the capital of more than three million.


"Never in the history of Ethiopia have we seen this gangsterism. Student protests have always been peaceful," Yemane said in an interview.


 "There is big unemployment in Addis that perpetuates that kind of gangsterism. It's fertile ground for criminals."


 Yemane said police were justified in opening fire at looters amid protests by students demanding academic freedom. Anyone convicted of offences such as theft faced being sent to the countryside to perform hard labour for long periods, he said.


  Medical sources said 41 people were killed in the disturbances on Wednesday, described by residents as the worst in the city since the 1991 overthrow of the Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. The government put the death toll at 31.


  "The hooligans hijacked the student movement's dissatisfaction with the university administration. They took the opportunity to loot," Yemane said. "I am vehemently opposed to hooligans and gangsters...who transformed the students political movement into criminal issues."


  Human rights groups have accused the police of using excessive force when Wednesday's student demonstration degenerated into violence that saw thousands of jobless youths, some armed with machetes and guns, rampage through the city centre.


Asked to comment on the allegation, Yemane replied: "No, I don't think so. I think the whole of Addis would have come down if they had not acted. The police have the right to defend the security of the people and their property."


"Some victims were killed by police, some by guards protecting shops, some by shopowners themselves protecting their shops, others by stray bullets."


Yemane dismissed accusations by newspaper commentators and opposition activists that the riots signalled popular discontent with the government of the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).


 But he called on his colleagues in government to redress the country's poverty which he said was a fertile cause of discontent and gangsterism.


Yemane reiterated government accusations that opposition political parties and human rights groups had incited the unrest to try to undermine the government. The oposition and human rights groups deny the charge.


Hundreds of students and jobless youths were rounded up by police after the riots on Wednesday and remain in detention at a police training college outside the capital.


 Yemane said he expected students and anyone with no case to answer would be released in stages.


"They will be released step by step, selectively, the students earlier than anyone else," he said. Suspected criminals would be taken to court, and the guilty would be sentenced and taught a lesson, he said.


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