* Three politicians murdered in two months
* Investors watching closely as election approaches
* Ruling party, opposition trade murder accusations
ADDIS ABABA, May 7 (Reuters) – Ethiopia’s ruling party accused the opposition on Friday of killing one of its candidates ahead of this month’s national election, in an allegation denied by the main opposition alliance.
Both sides have stepped up rhetoric ahead of the May 23 election — the first vote in the Horn of Africa country since 2005 when a disputed poll ended with street riots and the jailing of politicians.
Ethiopian government spokesman Shimeles Kemal said one of the ruling party’s candidates had been stabbed to death, in a first murder accusation against Medrek, the country’s main opposition coalition.
“Itana Idossa was stabbed to death by Medrek members a week ago after he left a meeting,” he said. “Police have apprehended suspects — Medrek activists.”
Medrek dismissed the accusation. “The people who killed him have no connection with us,” Merera Gudina, leader of one of the coalition parties, the Oromo Peoples’ Congress, told Reuters.
The ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front is expected to win the election comfortably. Medrek is seen as the biggest political force challenging the 19-year-old government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
At the time of the 2005 vote, the government said the violence was part of a plan to force an unconstitutional change. Security forces killed 193 people on the streets and top opposition leaders were imprisoned. Seven policemen were killed.
The opposition says their candidates and voters are harassed and intimidated. The government, for its part, says the opposition plans to incite street violence and discredit the poll because it has no chance of winning.
The political climate in Ethiopia is watched closely by investors eyeing oil and gas exploration and large-scale farming projects there.
Last month, a senior Medrek official, Bulcha Demeksa, said an opposition activist was bludgeoned to death with a gun butt by ruling party members.
The ruling party responded by saying the man died of cancer and vowed to prosecute Bulcha. On Thursday, the man’s father told Voice of America radio station that his son was beaten to death by government militia men.
Both killings happened in the Oromia region, home to Ethiopia’s biggest ethnic group, the Oromo, who number 27 million out of 80 million people.
In March, a Medrek candidate in the north of the huge country, Aregawi Gebre-Yohannes, was attacked and stabbed to death. The opposition says his killing was a political murder, but the government says he died in a bar fight. A man has been sentenced to 15 years in jail for his murder. (Reporting by Barry Malone, editing by George Obulutsa and Maria Golovnina