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Meanwhile, the government has cracked down on Muslim protesters and forced thousands of people from their land in Gambella and South Omo to make room for commercial agricultural projects.

An aide to a U.S. senator involved in African affairs described Mr. Meles‘ absence as unsustainable and said it’s anybody’s guess how the country might unravel.

David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, said domestic unrest is unlikely to have much impact on Ethiopia’s policy in Somalia because self-interest is guiding the government’s involvement there.

“Any government in [Ethiopia’s capital] Addis Ababa will link unrest in Somalia to potential or actual unrest in Ethiopia’s Odaden region,” Mr. Shinn said, referring to the Ethiopian territory that borders Somalia.

The Ethiopian government likely sees itself benefiting from the U.S. drone operation in terms of security and intelligence-sharing with the West.

A spokesman in the U.S. Bureau of African Affairs said the United States has been in contact with several Ethiopian officials since Mr. Meles‘ disappearance but would not speculate on what changes might occur should the prime minister not return to his duties.

Mr. Meles took power after the fall of the communist Haile Mariam Mengistu government in 1991 and was re-elected amid accusations of voting fraud in 2005.