Ethiopian rebels press on, ignore cease-fire calls

May 23, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Ethiopian rebels ignored international appeals for a cease-fire in their civil war and moved yesterday to within 40 miles of the capital, Addis Ababa, one day after they forced the country's dictator to end his 14-year rule and flee to Zimbabwe.

"It was our pressure that brought Mengistu Haile Mariam to the position of leaving the country, and we will continue the pressure," said Asefa Mamo, a spokesman in London for the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, one of the two major insurgent groups operating in the country.

But Mr. Mamo said that the EPRDF still would attend peace talks scheduled for Monday in London under U.S. sponsorship.

Forces of the EPRDF, a coalition of six ethnic and regionally based rebel organizations, moved yesterday past the town of Addis Alem, about 40 miles west of Addis Ababa on a well-paved road with few physical obstacles to slow an advance on the capital.

The rebels "are an immediate threat just if they keep walking," said one observer in Addis Ababa.

The group claimed that battles in and around Addis Alem over the last two days had left more than 5,000 government troops dead and that about 1,500 officers had been captured. The claims were unconfirmed.

Western diplomats and others in Addis Ababa, reached by telephone from Nairobi, said that people in the capital were outwardly calm but that "the percentage of nervous strain is just going up," in the words of one.

The government, now under the leadership of former Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Tesfaye Gabre Kidan, who was named acting head of state upon Mr. Mengistu's departure, broadened a citywide curfew to 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., and there were reports of increased armored activity around Addis Ababa.

Western governments, many of which had tried to pressure Mr. Mengistu to resign, warned yesterday that the continued rebel advance could provoke unnecessary bloodshed. With the new government essentially capitulating to rebel demands for creation of a transitional government and moves toward free elections, and with peace talks set to begin Monday, the rebels' political goals were in sight, they argued.

"A lot of people are going to die needlessly, because the war is essentially over," said a Western diplomatic source. "The politics in Ethiopia now are oriented toward what the insurgents want."

Mr. Mengistu was reported to have taken refuge on a farm he owns near Zimbabwe's capital, and official sources said he was likely to seek political asylum.

Unlike the separatist Eritrean People's Liberation Front, the second major rebel group operating in Ethiopia, the EPRDF had long stated as its principal goal the removal of Mr. Mengistu as head of state.

But Tuesday, after Mr. Mengistu's departure, and again yesterday, the EPRDF contended that the new leadership was too closely associated with the old for a change in policy to be self-evident.

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