Rebels pledge democracy in Ethiopia U.S.-brokered talks end in agreement after fall of capital

May 29, 1991|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- Ethiopian rebels agreed yesterday to replace military dictatorship with democratic government and promised to ease the way for the immediate flow of international aid to starving millions in the violence- and drought-ridden country.

The agreement, ending two days of U.S.-brokered peace talks, came hours after the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, the largest of three rebel movements, captured the capital, Addis Ababa.

Faced with the prospect of total chaos in the capital, the United States asked the front Monday to take immediate "state responsibility" in the beleaguered capital.

At dawn yesterday, forces of the Tigrean-dominated EPRDF stormed the city and poured fire from Soviet T-54 tanks, rocket launchers and machine guns into the presidential palace complex, where remnants of the national army were holed up.

The rebels gained control of the palace complex after three hours, and scattered fighting followed for several hours in other parts of the city. By evening, the shooting had tapered off, and the capital's streets were empty.

The Red Cross said that up to 750 civilians have been injured in the capital in recent days, including perhaps 250 in an ammunition dump explosion yesterday as the rebels stormed in.

The takeover, culminating decades of civil war, came one week after President Mengistu Haile Mariam resigned and fled his strategic African nation after 17 years of dictatorial rule.

Yesterday, tens of thousands of Ethiopians also were reported fleeing the country in fear of the new rulers. A Kenyan official told the Associated Press that about 20,000 Ethiopians, including soldiers and officers, had entered Kenya by sunset.

Meles Zanawi, leader of the EPRDF, which had surrounded Addis Ababa in recent days after a three-month assault, said in London that the transition from military to civil rule would be followed by internationally supervised elections.

He promised to convene a conference with other rebel groups by July 1. "We will try not to interfere too much in the short time we have before the formation of the broad-based provisional government," he said.

Mr. Zanawi said he would return to Ethiopia as soon as possible and listed his priorities as establishing law and order and facilitating relief for millions of Ethiopians imperiled by drought and famine.

"We don't expect any conflicts. We don't expect any wars, so I think we'll have the best relief assistance program for the past 15 years," he said.

He also rejected "retribution" or "vendettas" but said former officials might face trials that would be open to international supervision.

As the EPRDF moved into Addis Ababa, acting Prime Minister Tesfaye Dinka walked out of the London peace talks, saying that the ousted government was "very disappointed" with the U.S.-backed EPRDF's takeover.

Herman Cohen, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs and the chief U.S. negotiator, denounced the walkout, saying it was the rebels who would decide the country's future, not the deposed government leaders.

"We are not supporting anyone. We are supporting a democratic transition in Ethiopia," said Mr. Cohen, who urged "free, democratic, internationally monitored elections in nine to 12 months."

He emphasized that future U.S. support of Ethiopia would depend on its adoption of democratic government. "No democracy, no cooperation," Mr. Cohen said.

He urged the transitional government to consider a political amnesty except for contraventions against the laws of war or human rights.

Mr. Cohen threw his support behind self-determination for Eritrea but stopped short of endorsing the province's independence, one of the sharpest distinctions between the aims of the rebel groups participating in the London talks.

The three Ethiopian groups that accepted the U.S. blueprint for peaceful resolution of the 30-year-long civil war were the EPRDF, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front, and the Oromo Liberation Front.

Dima Noggo of the Oromo Liberation Front also expressed misgivings about the EPRDF's assumption of power in Addis Ababa.

"We feel we have been left out," Mr. Noggo said.

A spokesman for the Eritrean independence movement said the group would not take part in the interim government, but neither would it declare immediate independence, stalling a possible future crisis.

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