Ethiopia says plotters sought to assassinate officials

* Plan to assassinate officials, blow up utilities

* Ethiopia may seek extradition of diaspora figures

ADDIS ABABA, May 1 (Reuters) - Ethiopia said on Friday a group led by an Ethiopian-American professor had planned to assassinate officials and blow up public utilities in a plot to topple the government.

Addis Ababa arrested 40 former and current army personnel and members of a disbanded opposition group last week from a "terror network" it said was formed by Berhanu Nega, an opposition leader now living in the United States.

"Several individuals were targeted for assassination," Bereket Simon, head of information for Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government, told reporters, without saying who were the intended targets.

"They were intending to pave the way for street actions to overthrow the government," he said, adding that the group had planned to target telecommunications and power sectors.

Some 200 opposition supporters were killed and hundreds arrested following the disputed 2005 parliamentary election.

Berhanu, now residing in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania, was elected mayor of Addis Ababa in that poll, but was arrested when the opposition disputed the results. He and other opposition leaders were released in a 2007 pardon.

Meles was initially hailed as part of a new generation of African leaders, but rights groups have increasingly criticised the rebel-turned-leader for cracking down on opposition.

Even though Meles has held power since the early 1990s, the recent arrests show his government is still sensitive to the opposition in the run-up to next year's parliamentary vote.

Sub-Saharan Africa's second most populous country has been eyed by foreign investors in agriculture, horticulture and real estate although it has recently suffered from high inflation and a fall in foreign exchange inflows.


Berhanu's group called the accusations "baseless".

"No amount of scurrilous accusations, threats or blackmail by the regime will deter us from pursuing the cause of democracy and freedom," it said on its Web site last week.

Bereket said those arrested included a general.

The government may ask for Berhanu and others from the United States and Britain to be extradited, Bereket said.

"If a court of law adjudicates that they are criminal, then as with any criminal we would want their extradition," he said.

Bereket said the group had received money to buy weapons from Berhanu and other diaspora opposition members.

Berhanu's organisation "May 15th" is named after the date of the 2005 poll. He had made statements in the United States, where he teaches economics at Bucknell University, saying it wants to violently overthrow the government.

Opposition parties routinely accuse the government of harassment and say their candidates were intimidated during local elections in April of last year. The government denies it. (Editing by Jack Kimball)