Ethiopia's PM says soldiers who marched on palace sought to 'abort reforms'

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said on Thursday that soldiers who marched on his palace last week had had “nefarious aims” to stop reforms and he defended his relaxed attitude to them at the time saying he had sought to defuse tensions.

FILE PHOTO: Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed addresses a news conference in his office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Kumera Gemechu/File Photo

Several hundred armed soldiers descended on the palace on Oct. 10 and met Abiy in what the government initially said was a bid to press for a rise in pay.

State television subsequently showed the 42-year old leader doing push-ups with smiling men in fatigues and red berets, some of whom stood snapping photos on their mobile phones.

“The approach taken (by the soldiers) was not only unconstitutional and dangerous, the intent was to abort reforms,” Abiy told lawmakers in an address to parliament in which he gave details of the incident for the first time.

“Five to 10 people with nefarious aims” had instructed the soldiers, he added.

He gave no further details of the alleged instigators but he said he physically exercised with the soldiers to defuse tensions.

“Had we not taken a cautious approach, it could have led to a dangerous situation. All this took place without a single bullet being fired and a single loss of life,” he said, adding unspecified forces “regretted missing out on the opportunity to kill” him.

Since his appointment in April, Abiy has presided over a raft of reforms that have turned the region’s politics on its head, including the pardoning of dissidents long outlawed by the government.

He has also acknowledged and condemned abuses by security forces, even likening them to state terrorism.

But his actions have failed to curb violence that has often pitted different ethnic groups against each other. About 2.2 million people out of a population of 100 million have been displaced since last year.

In June, a grenade attack attended by tens of thousands of his supporters rattled a rally moments after he finished giving a speech, killing two people.

In recent months, thousands of people were arrested on suspicion of involvement in violence in the capital and its outskirts that left dozens of people dead.

State-run media said nearly 1,200 young men were released on Wednesday having spent weeks in detention.

“Lawlessness is the norm these days. It is something that is testing the government,” Abiy said in parliament. “Unless we collaborate and work hand-in-hand, we may not exist as a country anymore.”

Editing by Richard Balmforth