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* Repression stepped up before 2010 election
* Donors increase aid as govt uses it to crush dissent
By Barry Malone
ADDIS ABABA, Oct 19 (Reuters) - Ethiopia's ruling party is using food and other aid to clamp down on the opposition and foreign donors are turning a blind eye to the practice, a rights group said on Tuesday.
The Horn of Africa nation is one of the world's largest recipients of foreign aid, receiving more than $3 billion in 2008, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
"The Ethiopian government is routinely using access to aid as a weapon to control people and crush dissent," Rona Peligal, HRW's Africa director, said in a statement.
"If you don't play the ruling party's game, you get shut out. Yet foreign donors are rewarding this behavior with ever-larger sums of development aid."
The New York-based organisation said it had documented cases of opposition supporters in rural areas being denied emergency food aid and access to a long-running food-for-work scheme that caters to more than 7 million people.
Both schemes are foreign-funded and HRW said donors, including the United States, Britain and the World Bank, were "shutting their eyes" to repression.
Ethiopia is a key Western ally in the Horn of Africa, where it is seen as a bulwark against militant Islamism. It also wants to attract foreign investment in large-scale farming and oil and gas exploration.
"Political repression was particularly pronounced during the period leading up to parliamentary elections in May 2010," HRW said.
Before the poll, the Ethiopian government denied opposition claims it was denying food, fertiliser, seeds and civil service jobs to political opponents.
At the time, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi called the allegations "outrageous and stupid". There was no immediate government reaction on Tuesday to HRW's allegations.
The ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and allies won 545 seats in the 547-member parliament on May 23 in a vote that was criticized by the United States and the European Union.
The biggest opposition coalition, the eight-party Medrek, won just a single parliamentary seat. (Editing by Richard Lough and Tim Pearce)