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Ethiopia PM rebuffs election critics; opposition calls for rerun amid claims vote was flawed

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — Ethiopia's newly re-elected prime minister sharply rebuffed U.S. and European Union criticism of the weekend election, as opposition leaders called Wednesday for a rerun.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said his party's landslide win in Sunday's poll was free and fair despite the EU's initial report that concluded the ruling party was given an unfair advantage. He is now poised to begin five more years of rule, and celebrated that by holding a rally on Tuesday.

"We have no regrets and we offer no apologies," he said Wednesday. "Next time around, we may lose some or all of our seats. Nobody knows."

The U.S. and European Union expressed concern over the fairness of the election.

U.S. National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer said late Tuesday that U.S. Embassy officials were denied accreditation and the opportunity to travel outside of the capital to observe the voting.

He added in a statement, "An environment conducive to free and fair elections was not in place even before Election Day. In recent years, the Ethiopian government has taken steps to restrict political space for the opposition through intimidation and harassment, tighten its control over civil society, and curtail the activities of independent media."

Meles, whose government is reliant on billions of dollars of foreign aid — most of it from the U.S. — accused the U.S. government of meddling and said he could do without their assistance. He also accused diplomats in Washington of telling Ethiopian diplomats there that the U.S. would be unhappy if the opposition lost seats.

"Quite a few people in Washington were more interested in the outcome than the process," he said, adding, "If (the U.S.) feels the outcome of the elections are such that we cannot continue our relationship, that's fine and we can move on."

Earlier Wednesday, the opposition bloc called for a rerun over claims that opposition observers were turned away and that voters and candidates were intimidated.

"The process of the elections was not democratic-building but was a regression in democracy," said one prospective parliamentarian, Hailu Shawel.

Ethiopian election officials said they witnessed no irregularities, and government spokesman Bereket Simon said the election was free and fair.

But EU observers said Tuesday they found that the poll was marred by an uneven playing field that favored the ruling party. Since the last violent elections in 2005, some critics say the government has systematically stifled the competition.

On Wednesday, African Union observers said they found the poll to be consistent with their guidelines. They raised no specific problems, but made several vague recommendations that indicated possible irregularities with candidates observing electoral laws, with the security of ballots and with the freedom of the campaign environment.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said voters were told they could lose food assistance, public-sector jobs, loans and educational opportunities if they voted against the ruling party.

Ethiopia is frequently criticized for its human rights record, including by the U.S. State Department, which in a March report cited reports of "unlawful killings, torture, beating, abuse and mistreatment of detainees and opposition supporters by security forces, often acting with evident impunity." Still, the U.S. considers Ethiopia an ally and provides foreign aid. Both countries want to curb Islamist extremism in Somalia, Ethiopia's unstable neighbor to the east.

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Associated Press Writer Samson Haileyesus contributed to this report.