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The upcoming official visit by United States President Barack Obama has sparked fierce debate between thrilled diplomats and concerned activists in the US.
Former diplomats say that Obama’s visit, a first for a sitting American president, is welcome news that recognizes the two countries’ ever-increasing ties. Meanwhile, human rights activists say the visit could be seen as an endorsement of the Ethiopian government’s alleged restriction of press and political freedoms.
The US State Department, in its annual Human Rights Report issued on June 25, grouped Ethiopia together with a small list of countries including China and Eritrea, accused of contravening human rights. Rights groups say that despite such reports, the US priorities its security cooperation with Ethiopia while turning a blind eye to rights abuse.
A historic visit
Former presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George Bush have all visited Ethiopia, but only after leaving office. The 44th US President Barack Obama visited Ethiopia back in 2006, as senator of Illinois.
“This will be the first visit of a sitting U.S. President to Ethiopia and to the African Union headquarters, underscoring our efforts to work with the countries and citizens of sub-Saharan Africa to accelerate economic growth, strengthen democratic institutions, and improve security, “ the White House announced in a statement.
Back in March, the White House had announced that the president would attend the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi, Kenya. President Obama’s stop in Ethiopia, disclosed last week, will reportedly follow his stay in Kenya.
Close collaboration
Former diplomats, who served as US ambassadors to Ethiopia, have welcomed the news saying it recognizes the two countries long and important relationship.
“In spite of the long relationship the United States has had with Ethiopia, dating back to Emperor Menelik, a sitting American president has never visited the country. I believe the White House decided it was time to rectify this situation,” says David Shinn who served as American top diplomat in Ethiopia in mid 1990s.
Shinn, now a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, told Capital that there has been “close collaboration” between the two countries in various areas including counter terrorism operations for at least 20 years.
Vicki Huddleston, who also served as American Ambassador to Ethiopia, said she was pleased to hear about the visit.
Huddleston served as Chargé d’Affaires ad interim during the post-2005 election period, which saw violence that claimed hundreds of lives. Ethiopia has continued to receive US aid amounting to billions of dollars annually.
The former diplomat said Obama’s visit comes because Ethiopia “is a leader in the continent and “a good friend” of the US.
Appointed by Obama in 2009, Huddleston served as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense until her retirement in January 2012. During this period, Ethiopia agreed to house a US military facility in Arba Minch, which includes a US Air Force airfield for drone operations.
Ethiopian and American forces enjoy close cooperation and have launched multiple strikes against fighters of the Somalia-based al-Shabaab. The terrorist group, despite losing its stronghold in Somalia, is managing to stage deadly attacks throughout the region.
“I know that the U.S. government appreciates Ethiopia’s strong stand against extremism,” said Huddleston. She did not comment on the significance of the Arba Minch base for US counter-terrorism operations in Eastern Africa.
However, Huddleston described the facility as “small” and “an example of productive cooperation” between the two governments.
Last month senior Ethiopian officials including Defense Minister Siraj Fegessa and Chief of Staff Samora Yenus went to Washington “to review U.S. security cooperation in Ethiopia”.
Wrong message on democracy
The news of Obama’s upcoming visit has been met with criticism among rights groups and prominent media outlets. Many are using social media to call for campaigns and demonstrations to protest the visit.
Officials at the Human Right Watch equated the visit with a gift made to an oppressive government. The Washington Post said that despite its growing economy, Ethiopia is standing out in Africa for “increasingly harsh repression and its escalating chokehold on independent media and political dissent.”
By choosing Ethiopia, “Mr. Obama is sending a message to Africa that democracy isn’t all that important after all,” said the Post in its editorial.
Amidst the criticisms, officials at the White House reportedly said that Obama’s visit to Addis Ababa “is more about America’s relationship with sub-Saharan Africa than a single nation”.
But former State Department senior official Vicki Huddleston said Obama’s visit to Ethiopia is being unfairly targeted.
“The President visits all types of government around the world – some of whom we agree with, some of whom we do not. I do not think it is correct to treat Africa differently. The President should visit Ethiopia and all other African countries where he can promote U.S. interests in democracy, stability, and economic growth,” Huddleston said.

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The United States’ State Department annual report this year has toughened its tone in condemning Ethiopia’s record on rights, even Secretary of State John Kerry, grouped the country with Cuba, Belarus and China. This, former diplomats and experts say, is an indication that Washington will be testing the new leadership in Addis Ababa to see if it’s willing to embrace political reforms ahead of 2015 national polls.
Successfully staging the country’s first ever peaceful power transfer following the death of long time ruler Meles Zenawi in 2012, the ruling party has consolidated its control. There is however no sign that the government of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn is heeding Washington’s calls for major reforms. A spokesperson for the PM earlier this month said any legislative or political reforms have to be “organic” and initiated by the government’s own assessments.
Significant shift 
Annually compiled by American embassies across the globe, the State Department submits to the US Congress detailed reports of human rights conditions on all United Nations members while those receiving assistance from the US are particularly targeted. Ethiopia, receiving about one billion dollars in annual aid from the US, and much more from multi-donor establishments such as the World Bank where Washington holds significant controls, falls among a list of nations which receive stronger scrutiny.
Many governments angrily react to the report. China for instance tries to turn the tables on the US, issuing a report of its own condemning alleged failures of the US government to uphold its citizens’ rights. The Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is often tasked to respond to the report, by including the reaction in its weekly report and even  issuing a statement. The latter usually means the government sees a need to send a forceful rebuttal.
When America’s top diplomat John Kerry stood before reporters on February 27th to release this year’s report, few anticipated that he would mention Ethiopia.
The report in its opening global review included Ethiopia, belittling the government’s actions of enforcing legislations that “rapidly shrink civil societies, close independent newspapers, and arrest, harass and prosecute journalists”.
Kerry hailed Eskinder Nega, a  veteran journalist and blogger the Ethiopian government jailed on terror charges.
“Some of the greatest accomplishments in expanding the cause of human rights have come not because of legislative decree or judicial fiat, but they came through the awesomely courageous acts of individuals,” said Kerry.
“Whether it is Xu Zhiyong fighting the government transparency that he desires to see in China, or Ales Byalyatski, who is demanding justice and transparency and accountability in Belarus, whether it is Angel Yunier Remon Arzuaga, who  sings (raps) for greater political freedom in Cuba, or Eskinder Nega, who is writing for freedom of expression in Ethiopia. Every single one of these people are demonstrating a brand of moral courage that we need now more than ever,” added the Secretary in his first publicly and strongly voiced criticism of the Ethiopian government.
The New York City-based rights group, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says the remarks are “significant”.
“It is significant in so far as Kerry, as the third most powerful official in the government that leads the global war on terrorism, sent a firm message in the clearest way that Eskinder Nega has no connections to terrorism and is in prison for his peaceful exercise of freedom of expression,” says CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita.
Keita says Prime Minister Hailemariam, after spending more than a year in office, isn’t improving the country’s track record when it comes to the free press.
“The facts speak for themselves: there are more journalists in prison today than there were when the late Meles Zenawi died, and there are journalists still being prosecuted for articles published when Meles was alive. Authorities are still conflating independent journalism and the mildest criticism of their actions with incitement to violence, treason or terrorism,” added Keita.
The State Department report says Ethiopia restricts freedom of expression and association.
Ethiopian security forces reportedly arrest, detain, harass, intimidate and put people on politically motivated trials to stifle dissidence. The report said its sources are convinced that police investigators often used physical abuse to extract confessions in Maekelawi, the central police investigation headquarters in Addis Ababa. Some prisons are described as “harsh” and “life threatening”. According to the report, opposition politicians and journalists are the main target of the government’s crackdown.
Tough Tone
While Ethiopia has never lived up to America’s expectations when it comes to human rights protections, the wording of this year’s report is a tough one, says former American Ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn.
“I think anyone who reads the State Department report will conclude it is a tough one,” said Shinn, the U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia from 1996 to 1999.
“Washington has for many years urged the government of Ethiopia to improve its human rights record, open political space, and allow for the functioning of a free press.  The question is how hard Washington pushes, how much real leverage it has, what are the foreign and domestic dynamics in Ethiopia that tend to operate against reform, and, most importantly, how willing is the government of Ethiopia to listen,” explains Shinn, now a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
Engineer GizachewShiferaw, the leader of the largest opposition, says that he would like the US “to persistently engage” Ethiopia on the reported accounts of the right abuses. Reporting the abuses isn’t enough, insisted Gizachew.
Human Rights Watch echoes the call, claiming that Ethiopia’s “atrocious human rights record” is not getting any better unless donors intervene.
Felix Horne, an Ethiopia Researcher for the group, says “there is a window of opportunity” for donors ahead of the scheduled May, 2015 national elections.
“There is a window of opportunity for donors to push for the opening up of political space in Ethiopia ahead of the critical 2015 elections. Ethiopia depends on incredible amounts of support from Western donors and that support comes with responsibilities including the opening up political space which includes the removal of restrictions on media and civil society,” said Horne.
In an interview with one Amharic weekly, GetachewReda, a spokesman for Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, downplayed the significance of the latest Department Report. He even labeled the document as the product of people “whose life depends on writing the report”.
“The Anti-Terrorist law was not issued with the covert agenda of muzzling the press. It is a law copied almost verbatim from the legislation of many developed countries passed to control the threat of terrorism,” said the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a recent statement which stanchly defended the country’s controversial legislations.
“The fear that the press will be targeted under anti-terrorist legislation is misplaced and cannot be supported by any cogent argument,” reads the statement,“While attacks on the supposed government attitude towards the private press in Ethiopia continue, the reality on the ground offers a very different picture. The private press in Ethiopia today is witnessing an unprecedented growth in circulation, a sharp rise in the number of professional journalists and in the financial capabilities and organizational strength of the media.”
The best way for Washington to press Ethiopia for reforms isn’t a public scolding, according to the former US top diplomat in Ethiopia.
“The United States and other Western countries should do everything reasonably possible, both publicly and privately, to encourage the opening of political space by engaging in a frank discussion with key members of the government.  I doubt that this effort will succeed through threats and public bombast,” said David Shinn.
Shinn says the main goal of a US-Ethiopia engagement should be “to see registered political parties given a chance to operate freely”.
Despite its latest tough tone that many see as being timed with next year’s national polls, the US seems to be encouraged by the latest political developments in Ethiopia including seeing the return of peaceful demonstrations on Addis streets.
“Although many problems exist and abuses occur, some recent events are encouraging. On June 2 of this year, for example, several thousand demonstrators calling for the release of political prisoners, an end to interference in religious affairs, action on unemployment and corruption, and an end to illegal evictions marched peacefully through the capital, without government interference. This was the first such political demonstration the Ethiopian government officially permitted since 2005,” said Patricia Haslach, US Ambassador to Ethiopia, in her senate confirmation speech last year.
Stationed in Addis since September, Haslach had vowed that she would “press the Government of Ethiopia to respect the rights of all its citizens regardless of ethnicity, clan, political views, or religious affiliation.”
The fate of Washington’s latest drive is to be seen in events leading to the May, 2015 national elections to which the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia says preparations are already underway.

The national flag carrier Ethiopian Airlines on Thursday August 29 announced an all-time high profit it partly credits for the Boeing787 planes.

Ethiopian Airlines chief executive officer Tewolde Gebremariam disclosed that his company has pocketed a record net profit of 2.03 billion birr.
The company’s profit was driven by operating profit surge which was nearly tripled to reach 2.7 billion birr between July 2012 and June 2013. The previous period of 2011/12 operating profit was just a billion birr.
Citing unaudited company accounts Tewolde said that the company’s net profit of 2 billion was “historic”, an increase of 178 percent from the previous period.
Flanked by senior managers at a press conference at the Hilton Addis, Tewolde said the performance is a result of “exceptionally dedicated employees”.

14 new planes including four Boeing 787s and nine new destinations Ethiopian has added during the 12 months were responsible for the company’s successful effort to boost revenues, according to the CEO who briefed local and international press in an hour long presentation.

The new routes said to be profitable and the new planes that were phased in have helped Ethiopian revenues expand by 14 percent to 38.5 billion birr during the period. “We opened nine new routes during the year which is a record for us. The 14 new planes means we were taking delivery of more than one new airplane every month… which is a remarkable by any standard,” the CEO told reporters.

The CEO added that Ethiopian would have been even more profitable, if it had not been for incidents involving the Boeing 787 Dreamliners.
The company’s five Dreamliners halt operations for three and half months after the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration grounded the aircraft following incidents with smoldering batteries involving on two 787s operated by other airlines.
Again in early July, one of Ethiopian’s 787 planes was damaged while parked at London Heathrow airport.
The plane had been parked for about 9 hours when a worker in the control tower saw smoke coming out, and activated a crash alarm, according to British air safety officials. They have subsequently recommended that emergency transmitters on Boeing 787s should be disabled after finding that one of the squat orange boxes was the only thing with enough power to start a fire in the scorched tail section of a the parked 787.
Ethiopian is seeking compensation from Boeing for the period that these planes were not in service and the CEO says negotiations are currently ongoing.
“Definitely the incidents and the grounding have some impact. But we were very fortunate that the grounding of the planes was coincidentally in what we call slack season…it’s a slow demand season. So were able to minimize the level of the impact,” said Tewolde.
He insisted the Dreamliners are “the future of the aviation” and his company is sticking with plans to buy five more of the Dreamliners and lease three others. Ethiopian is expecting a delivery of three more Dreamliners by next year.

“Whenever we introduce the aircraft in any route, the load factor immediately increases which means our customers like the plane, they are enjoying its features,” Tewolde said.
“The incidents are part of a natural teething period which is not unusual for a technologically game- changing aircraft such as the Dreamliner,” he added.

Touching some of the major investments the company is making, the CEO said that the delayed project for a construction of a four star hotel is soon to start by a Chinese company which will also be responsible for financing and managing the upcoming hotel.
During the fiscal year the company brought its global call center from New Delhi, India to its headquarters in Addis Ababa. As a fallback when Ethiopian Telecommunication service is interrupted, Ethiopian can now rely on its VSAT technology for nonstop internet connections.
With some 1,330 weekly flights, Ethiopian flies to 76 international and 17 domestic destinations.

An Ethiopian opposition group says the country’s police prevented them from staging a rally called to demand release of jailed activists.
Chairman of the opposition Blue Party Yilkal Getnet said Sunday that police stormed the party’s head office during Saturday night and has ceased various materials including banners and sound amplifiers prepared for Sunday’s demonstration.
Yilkal also said police has harshly beaten more than 100 members of the party and confiscated half million birr worth party properties.
“What happened was very shocking…more than 50 heavily armed soldiers stormed our office last night, some others surrounded the neighborhood; it felt like some sort of a military operation,” Yilkal tells of the events.
“They start trashing the office and cut off power and internet lines. After they took away our cell phones, we were taken to different police stations. While in police custody our members including ladies and veterans such as a sixty year-old were indiscriminately beaten… very harshly; they were forced to kneel down on sand barefoot and got beaten by federal police officers who used wires and sticks,” added Yilkal.
Yilkal says police is trying “break their morale and resolve with barbaric actions”. He says that the party, after holding an emergency session earlier today, decided to continue with plans to hold a demonstration now scheduled for the coming Saturday.
The party on June 2 rallied thousands that took to the streets of the capital demanding the immediate release of jailed journalists and activists in a rare show of public opposition to the ruling party which maintains strict control over the East African nation.
The peaceful rally was the first major demonstration since 2005 post-election unrest when security forces killed hundreds of protesters.
Protesters had vowed to return to the streets in three months’ time “unless the government releases journalists, activists, and Muslim leaders and annul unconstitutional legislations.” Sunday’s failed rally was called as per this plan.
Government officials were not immediately available for comment. But Addis Ababa City Council earlier announced that the Blue Party’s demonstration was not approved. It said the city has approved the date for another rally.
In a government-sanctioned rally, tens of thousands of the capital’s residents gathered at the city’s main square to denounce what they called “fundamentalism that is trying to take root” in the country.
Some in Ethiopia’s Muslim community — about one-third of the predominantly Christian nation — have been protesting alleged government interference in religious affairs for over two years.
The Muslim protesters accuse the government of unconstitutionally encouraging a moderate teaching of Islam called al-Ahbash.
The government has jailed over two dozen protest leaders currently facing charges under the country’s controversial terror law.
The government says the state is facing threats from Islāmic extremists.
Rights groups and the U.S. Commission on Intentional Religious Freedom however blame the government for the ongoing tensions with Muslims. Amnesty International says it’s concerned with authorities’ crackdowns on freedom of speech and the right to assemble.
But officials are vowing to continue to forcefully respond to the protests.
Addis Ababa city mayor Diriba Kuma, who addressed Sunday’s morning government-backed rally, said the government will take “all necessary measures” to curb fundamentalism and protect the country’s constitution.

The national flag carrier Ethiopian Airlines has pocketed a record profit during the just concluded fiscal year. The surge in revenues comes despite the grounding of Ethiopian’s Boeing 787 Dreamliner planes.

Ethiopian Chief Executive Officer Tewolde Gebremariam says that his company is awaiting final performance report for its accounting period that ended Sunday, June 30.

“Our accountants are working on the final numbers…but it’s been very, very successful year. We are going to register our historical record level of profit and again with 20-25 percent growth in revenue and number of passengers,” said Tewolde.

Tewolde said during the 12 months Ethiopian was significantly affected due to the grounding of its 787 planes that lasted for more than three months. In January the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration grounded the aircraft after incidents with smoldering batteries on two different planes. Ethiopian has similarly grounded the plane as precautionary move.

“It’s very unfortunate the aircraft was grounded. The flight was grounded when the aircraft had no problem with us, we didn’t like it but we had to accept as an international rule,” Tewolde said.

“During the grounding we were parking four airplanes on the ground, for an airline of our size it means a lot in terms of operational disruption, and financial impact… loss of revenues, and commercial impact,” he added.

Ethiopian is seeking to be compensated and has already notified Boeing the financial loss it incurred due to the grounding, the CEO also said. He explained that Boeing “acknowledged” their request and the two will work “to help each other in the long partnership” they have.

During the 2011/12 period Ethiopian pocketed an operating profit of one billion birr carrying 4.6 million passengers. The period was marked by an oil price hike during which the airliner was the only carrier in the continent that remained in the black.

The latest figures show that both revenues that stood at 33.8 billion birr last year and number of passengers have grown upwards. The latest performance shows the airliner carried 6 million passengers and 200,000 tons of cargo during the 12 months.

Ethiopian says it has remained in the black due to cost saving schemes and successful new routes. On Monday the chief executive along 160 passengers took the company’s first flight to South America on one of the 787 Dreamliners. On the occasion Ethiopian became a first carrier to take the ultramodern aircraft to Brazil.

“I am not sure but I think we are the only profitable and fast growing airline in Africa this year as well. Now with new services to Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, which we operate through our second hub in Lome, Togo, we have become a first African carrier to connect West Africa to South America,” the CEO said before boarding on the flight he said will take 13 hours to reach in Brazil.

The CEO says they are particularly targeting the China-India-Africa-Brazil trade lane with the new services.

“The China-India-Africa-Brazil trade lane is the fastest growing in the world. Our new Brazil flights will provide efficient connections with 28 weekly flights to 4 destinations in China, 14 weekly flights to the 2 major cities in India, daily flights to Lebanon, five weekly flights to Tel Aviv and almost daily flights to 45 cities across Africa,” he explained.
Based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopian Airlines is currently operating an all-Boeing fleet of 60 planes. It flies to 75 international and 17 domestic destinations.

Ethiopian prosecutors on Tuesday secured a two-week period from a federal court to finalize corruption charges against two dozen people including a senior cabinet minister.

On three grouping, the 24 people including Melaku Fenta, head of the Ethiopian Revenues and Customs Authority with a rank of minister, are accused illegal trading, and tax evasion which were allegedly aided by the tax authority’s staffers.

The suspects first appeared in court on Monday after a wave of arrests across the country beginning Friday.

Melaku’s deputy and other senior officials of the authority alongside the country’s prominent business people were also put behind bar. Simachew Kebede, the owner of the Intercontinental Addis hotel, is among the jailed business owners.

The country’s intelligence agency and corruption watchdog jointly announced the arrests of 13 people over the weekend. But court documents now show an expanded list of suspects which includes close family members of the accused.

Prosecutors on Monday requested the court permission to keep the suspects under police custody for two more weeks for questioning they said is needed to finalize the charges.

The suspects protested the request and demanded to be released on bail.

Melaku’s lawyer told the court that his client should be released immediately. The lawyer argued that Melaku should not have been charged in the first place since he has immunity as a member of the Addis Ababa city’s council.

A revered figure among the ranks of the ruling party, Melaku has been serving both the federal government and the city council. His arrest came as a shock to many with some pundits suspecting political motives behind the charges.

Other suspects complained that they are not being allowed to meet with their family and get legal counsel.

Head of the corruption watchdog, commissioner Ali Sulaiman, told parliament on Tuesday that the suspects were under surveillance for over two years and their prosecution strictly followed legal procedures.

The latest arrests were made with a green light from Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Ali said.

The three judge panel of the court ruled Tuesday approving prosecutors’ request for more time to submit the official charges. All the 24 suspects are ordered to remain under police custody. Melaku will appear in court on Friday to hear a ruling whether he still enjoys immunity as a member of the outgoing city council.

The court adjourned to May 27 to hear the charges.

Another cabinet member Brehan Hailu, Minister of Justice, was also fired. The minister is not currently facing any charges.

Both Berhan and Melkau come from the country’s Amahra region, a likely reason to raise a quota concern in the country’s top executive branch led by Prime Minister Hailemariam.

Hailemariam, who comes from the country’s south took office following the August sudden death long time ruler Meles Zenawi. The ruling party is made of four leading ethnic groups of the country and senior posts are closely monitored to reflect equitable share.

The federal high court on Tuesday passed guilty verdicts against 10 individuals that have formed an al-Qaida cell.
A discovery of such a terrorist network is a first for the country which have its soldiers fighting al-Qaida-linked militants in neighboring Somalia.
A key ally for the US war on terror, Ethiopia’s military push against the militants has angered al-Shabab which called on its operatives to attack the country.
In a ruling read out on Tuesday’s court session, Judge Bahiru Darecha said the group members were mapping out plans and mobilized resources to carry out attacks against the country’s political, and economic establishments to coerce the public to accept radical Islam. Four of the ten convicted individuals have been tried under police custody while the six are still at large.
Another individual who was under police custody for several months was acquitted of all charges. Darecha ordered his immediate release.
Among those convicted is a Kenyan national Hassan Jarso. When first charged in May, Jarso pleaded guilty to the charges but protested prosecutor’s claims that he is the leader of the group.
“We did plan the attacks and to open the [training] camp but none of it was realized,” Jarso had told the court. He added that he was waiting for money from al-Qaida operatives to establish the camp and start a militancy based in Oromia region.
Before entering Ethiopia from Somalia, Jarso fought alongside al-Shabab fighters against African Union peace keeping force deployed there to back the fragile Somalia government.
The other three convicts had denied the charges. They are all religious teachers. In a defense they alleged that they were beaten by police to confess and sign on documents and exhibits that were planted on their houses.
A three-judge panel did not accept the claims. Their ruling said the evidences and witnesses presented by prosecutors proved beyond reasonable doubt the individuals willingly aided plans to setup the envisaged terrorist camp and preached Jihad in mosques.
The court was adjourned to January 15 for sentencing on the 10 convicted individuals. All of the four in custody asked the court to consider their family and poor education level to commute for the sentencing. They are also planning to appeal their convictions to the Federal High Supreme Court.
A day after securing the convictions against members of the first alleged terrorist network, authorities say they made other arrests against another cell affiliated with al-Shabab and al-Qaida terror groups.
In a statement issued on Wednesday, the National Security and Intelligence Agency announced that 15 members of a terrorist cell affiliated with al-Qaida network in East Africa were put under police custody.
Military training manuals, jihad war videos and a variety of weapons were also discovered by police, according to the statement.
The 15 suspects were trained by al-Shabab forces in Somali and in Kenya. The group had been sent to Ethiopia to carry out attacks and launch operations based in Somali and Harar regional states, the statement reads.