Key Ethiopian town falls Americans told to go

April 26, 1991|By Frank Starr | Frank Starr,Chief of The Sun's Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The State Department ordered dependents and non-essential personnel out of the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia yesterday and advised other Americans to leave after the last town between the capital, Addis Ababa, and the countryside appeared to have fallen to Tigrean rebels.

Although the evacuation was ordered to avoid endangering about 600 Americans in a long-standing civil war, U.S. officials hinted that they considered the 17-year-old government of President Mengistu Haile Mariam to be in danger of falling.

"You might read that into it," said one, "although I'm not sure it's an imminent thing."

A spokesman for the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front was quoted in London as saying that its forces had taken the

town of Ambo, and State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that the town "appears to have fallen," though officials cautioned that they did not have independent confirmation.

The town, 65 miles due west of Addis Ababa, is the site of one of the country's major ammunition factories, and its possible fall had been identified earlier by the embassy as a trip wire to start contingency evacuation plans.

On March 12 an "authorization" to leave was issued after a combined force of Tigrean and Eritrean rebels gobbled up about a quarter of the country in a three-week drive.

The Eritrean People's Liberation Front, one of Africa's oldest rebel movements, has been fighting for political liberation of Eritrea since 1961, while the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front took up arms the year after President Mengistu overthrew Haile Selassie in 1974. But until February, the two movements had shown no inclination to fight together.

Then with identical announcements from their respective clandestine radios, they launched almost simultaneous drives, backed up with tanks and artillery, flanking government forces down both sides of the country from the north. The Tigreans took two western provinces, Gojam and Gonder, while the Eritreans drove down the seacoast toward the government's last remaining port at Aseb. The other major port, Mesewa, had fallen to Eritreans in February 1990.

Mr. Boucher said all 30 dependents as well as eight employees had left under the March order, leaving 28 government employees. Three more staff were expected to leave now. The 600 private Americans are mainly missionaries and relief workers, he said.

Nonetheless, he said that U.S. relief efforts against severe food shortages that have plagued the country for much of the last decade would continue "despite the difficulties."

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