Rebels' record opens questions about the future

May 29, 1991|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- With tacit U.S. support, Addis Ababa has come under the control of a rebel group whose recent statements and actions point to pragmatism but whose past would indicate the opposite.

The well-armed Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front took over the capital at U.S. urging yesterday after remnants of the existing government, facing looting and fires, told the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa that it could not maintain law and order and wanted the EPRDF to come in, a U.S. official here said.

The U.S. role enraged several hundred Washington-based members of the Coalition of Ethiopian Democratic Forces, who demonstrated loudly outside the State Department yesterday protesting what they called a U.S.-sponsored "deal" that favored ethnic-based rebel forces at the expense of the Ethiopian majority.

The demonstrators here reflected suspicions expressed by members of the two other Ethiopian rebel groups, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front and the Oromo Liberation Front, that the United States has given too much power to the Tigrean-dominated EPRDF.

But U.S. officials have shied away from a formal embrace of Addis Ababa's new rulers, with one official admitting to being as uncertain as outside analysts about the EPRDF's true colors.

The Tigrean rebels, the dominant group within the EPRDF, were in the past even more Marxist than Mengistu Haile Mariam, the president who fled into exile last week after a brutal 17 years in power.

"Their past record is not particularly encouraging," said Terrence Lyons, a senior research analyst at the Brookings Institution's Africa program.

The EPRDF has fought other opposition groups and has insisted on setting up its own Oromo faction rather than coming to terms with the principal Oromo group, he said.

But in recent months, the EPRDF has claimed to be broadly based and to favor democracy. And in areas under its control, it has given leeway to local leaders. "In areas they control, they've been quite pragmatic," Mr. Lyons said.

The United States hopes that when talks aimed at producing a transition government get under way in July, the EPRDF and the two other rebel groups that met yesterday in London will welcome broader participation.

But citing the EPRDF's democratic claims, a U.S. official acknowledged, "What this means when the time comes is anybody's guess."

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