Eritrean Rebels to Form Own Rule, Separate From Ethiopian GovernmentBy Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 30, 1991; Page A30
LONDON, MAY 29 -- Just one day after the fall of the Ethiopian government, Eritrean rebels who have been fighting for three decades to win independence for their Red Sea region declared that they will form a separate provisional government.
While insisting that they were not declaring independence outright -- and saying that they would cooperate with the Tigrayan and Oromo rebel groups that helped defeat the old regime -- the Eritreans gave notice that the world can expect soon to recognize a new African nation.
The leader of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front announced here today that his organization, which possesses one of Africa's largest armies, will take no part in the transitional government that is being put together by other rebel groups in Addis Ababa.
Instead, Issaias Afwerki, 45, who has been fighting for the Eritrean cause since he was 19, said that his group will administer Eritrea by itself until a U.N.-supervised referendum on independence for the region can be held.
"We are just formalizing an administration that has existed in Eritrea for 15 years," Issaias said.
The Eritrean rebels express confidence that a free and fair referendum will result in the creation of an independent Eritrea, a region of about 4 million people. It includes Ethiopia's only access to the sea.
The smallest of the three rebel groups at peace talks that ended here Tuesday announced today that it, too, wanted to hold a referendum on independence. The Oromo Liberation Front represents Ethiopia's most populous ethnic group. The Oromo live across the southern part of the country.
A source in the U.S. government, which brokered an Ethiopian peace agreement here this week, said the Eritrean announcement came as no surprise and that it "in no way negates or diminishes the agreements reached in the talks."
In those talks, the United States invited another rebel group, the Tigrayan-dominated Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, to move into Addis Ababa and restore order as the outgoing government collapsed. Tigray is a northern region of Ethiopia that borders Eritrea, but its rebels are not separatists.
The leader of the Tigrayan group, Meles Zenawi, said the Eritrean announcement was not a problem. He said earlier in the week that the Eritrean people have the right to decide whether or not they want independence.
News of the Eritrean announcement did not meet, however, with universal approval. It apparently helped trigger violent street protests today in Addis Ababa. Shortly after the Eritreans' London announcement was broadcast by radio in the Ethiopian capital, several thousand people went out into the streets to chant "One Ethiopia."
News reports said the protest was broken up by Tigrayan rebels, who fired their weapons above the heads of the demonstrators. Rebel commanders in Addis Ababa acknowledged injuries and deaths as the protests were put down.
Like most political entities in Africa, with the notable exception of Ethiopia itself, Eritrea is a European invention. It existed as a colony for 51 years after being created in 1890 by Italians who landed in the Horn of Africa to take part in the scramble for Africa. The very name comes from the Latin for Red Sea.
Before the Italians were driven out by Britain in World War II, they managed to convince most of the more than one dozen ethnic groups in the region -- half of them Muslim and half Christian, and comprising nine language groups -- that Eritrea indeed is a political entity.
The Italians left behind a sophisticated network of roads and railroads and one of Africa's most handsome capitals, Asmera. Under a 1950 United Nations agreement, the region was supposed to be autonomous. But it was systematically stripped of its autonomy by the government of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie.
In 1962, with U.S. acquiescence, Ethiopia annexed Eritrea and civil war began. Before that war razed much of the region, Eritrea, with less than one-tenth of Ethiopia's population, had more than one-third of its modern industrial capacity.
Rebel leaders said today that three decades of war, famine and privation in Eritrea, while wrecking much of the infrastructure, cemented the national unity of the various ethnic groups.
Living for years with almost daily air attacks from Ethiopian government jets, the Eritreans built a rebel state that was hidden underground and an economy that operated primarily at night.
It included machine shops, hospitals, a shoe factory, a chain of all-night gas stations and a school system for more than 25,000 children. After grade four, all students in the rebel schools take their courses in English.
In an interview today, Issaias said that the Eritrean People's Liberation Front is "convinced that advancement for Eritrea can only come with the introduction of English. It will open avenues for acquiring Western technology."
Like the Tigrayans to the south, the front embraced Marxist ideology in its early years. But recently Issaias and other leaders have been espousing a pragmatic line that they say will provide for free-market incentives and guarantee human rights.
Left-of-center Europeans, as well as a number of prominent African scholars, have given enthusiastic support to the front. The parliaments of Norway and Denmark, the British Labor Party and the Greens in Germany passed resolutions in the 1980s supporting independence for Eritrea.
For many years, the U.S. government was skeptical about the legitimacy of the front and scornful of the organization's politics. It had a policy of not approving of the division of any African states.
But Herman Cohen, the State Department's senior official for African affairs, said here on Tuesday that Washington was willing to accept the results of a free and fair referendum on independence for the region.
Asked about Eritrea's relations with Washington, Issaias said that "as far as the U.S. government is concerned, there is nothing rigid now. . . . The active role of the U.S. government in the peace talks suggests a change in attitude."
Issaias said Eritrea needs U.S. assistance, from famine aid to technical advice on rebuilding the country.
The World Food Program has estimated that about 4.1 million Ethiopians are in urgent need of food to head off a famine that this year could surpass the famine of 1984-85, which killed about 1 million people. The program said it and other relief organizations urgently need free access to Ethiopia's ports.
The Eritreans' radio today broadcast a message to the Ethiopian people saying that it "assures you that you can use the two Eritrean ports, Masawa and Aseb, as a corridor for any goods and relief foods donated to your affected citizens by the international community."
Issaias said the front has arrested "thousands" of officials from the old Addis Ababa government and that those who "committed crimes against civilians" will be tried in open court. He invited journalists to come to Asmera to witness the trials.
A senior member of the front said Eritrea will press for the return to Ethiopia of Mengistu Haile Mariam, the president who fled last week for Zimbabwe. Hagos Ghebrehiwet said that Mengistu, whose autocratic regime is widely held responsible for exacerbating famine and civil war in the country, should be tried as a war criminal.
© Copyright 1991 The Washington Post Company