Merkel starts Africa tour with plea to Ethiopia

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ADDIS ABABA, Oct 4 (Reuters) German Chancellor Angela Merkel began her first visit to sub-Saharan Africa today with a call for more democratic opening in Ethiopia, a key ally of the West but under scrutiny over rights issues.

On the first leg of a five-day tour also taking her to South Africa and Liberia, the German leader urged Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to provide greater space in Ethiopia for both political opposition and the media.

''We favour opening the country, opening the political system with the possibility for the opposition to air their views, and respecting freedom of the press,'' she said at a joint news conference, according to a translation of her remarks in German.

''All these characteristics of a country are the main pre-conditions for economic development.'' Ethiopia, sub-Saharan Africa's second most populous country, ranks 170 out of 177 on a UN development index.

Once a darling of the West, former guerrilla leader Meles' reputation suffered badly from post-election violence in 2005, when nearly 200 people died during protests over alleged vote-rigging, and the subsequent jailing of activists.

Meles says his government held the fairest multi-party polls in Ethiopia's history, and has been forced to crack down on would-be destabilisers of public security.

It recently freed most of the activists.

Merkel praised Meles for allowing Ethiopia to undergo a peer review mechanism in an African initiative to improve government accountability across the continent.

She said they had discussed the conflicts in Somalia and Sudan's Darfur region. Ethiopia has thousands of troops in Somalia to help the interim government against an Islamist-led insurgency, and it has offered 5,000 peacekeepers for Darfur.

The pair also touched on Ethiopia's border dispute with neighbour and bitter foe Eritrea. Merkel said she had offered German help to implement a boundary commission ruling on the border after a 1998-2000 war that killed 70,000 people.

Ethiopia is the United States' key counter-terrorism ally in the Horn of Africa. But disquiet in some Washington circles over its rights record was also emphasized this week when the House of Representatives passed an act demanding it make democratic changes or face cuts in military aid.

Merkel was due to visit the African Union's (AU) base in Addis Ababa later in the day, then fly on to South Africa.

In Johannesburg, she is expected to press President Thabo Mbeki to take a tougher line on neighbouring Zimbabwe, in the grip of an economic crisis critics blame on the government of President Robert Mugabe.

Germany is one of the biggest single aid donors to Africa, but does not have the same extensive colonial links as Britain, France and Portugal.

Merkel noted multi-billion aid pledges to Africa made by the Group of Eight (G8) industrialised countries during Germany's presidency this year. She added that a meeting of European and African leaders later in the year would monitor progress.

REUTERS JK KN1615

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