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  • Eritrea – Ethiopia Conflict


    Ethiopian Rebels Take Over Capital

    By Jennifer Parmelee
    Special to The Washington Post
    Wednesday, May 29, 1991; Page A01

    ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA, MAY 28 -- Ethiopian rebels launched a pre-dawn assault on this capital today, swiftly taking control of major government buildings and facilities after a brief exchange of artillery and small-arms fire with government forces.

    The rebel seizure of the capital -- at the urging of the U.S. government and with the acquiescence of Ethiopia's military leadership -- brought at least a temporary halt to the civil war that has divided the country for up to three decades.


    Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF): The oldest and best organized of Ethiopia's three main rebel groups has fought a 30-year war of secession against the government in Addis Ababa. The front controls a reported 40,000-50,000 regular troops and a militia estimated at 30,000. Last week's military victories put all of Eritrea under EPLF control for the first time.

    Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF): This guerrilla coalition, which led the assault on the capital yesterday, is dominated by rebels from the Tigray People's Liberation Front. TPLF came to prominence in the 1970s and now numbers an estimated 70,000 troops. In recent years the front has worked to moderate its hard-line Marxist image by stressing a commitment to democracy and free-market policies.

    Oromo Liberation Front (OLF): This much smaller rebel group, numbering roughly 7,000 troops, represents the country's most populous ethnic group, which has long felt oppressed by the minority Amharic population in Addis Ababa. The OLF advocates self-determination for the Oromo people and emphasizes Oromo culture and language. It has operated mainly in the country's south.

    Compiled by James Schwartz – The Washington Post

    SOURCES: The Washington Post; Associated Press; International Institute of Strategic Studies

    The whereabouts of acting President Lt. Gen. Tesfaye Gebre-Kidan, who assumed government leadership last week after longtime Marxist leader Mengistu Haile Mariam fled to Zimbabwe, could not be immediately determined. At nightfall today, the International Red Cross estimated that about 500 civilians had been wounded during the past 48 hours, including those hurt in a violent looting rampage by government forces before the rebels arrived.

    Both here and in London, where government and insurgent leaders met for U.S.-mediated talks over the past two days, the rebels pledged to govern the country even-handedly and with the aim of creating a multi-party democracy. Meles Zenawi, leader of one of the three main rebel groups involved in the fighting, said in London that he would seek to establish a broad-based transitional government, and other rebel officials said they hoped to hold internationally supervised free elections as soon as possible. {Details on Page A24.}

    The men and women guerrillas who brought one of Africa's largest armies to its knees arrived here at first light, entering the capital atop captured Soviet-made tanks, in battered trucks and on foot, wearing tattered sandals and boots. Some led donkeys or mules piled high with rifle ammunition and hand grenades; others carried heavy rocket launchers.

    The arrival of thousands of guerrilla members of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, who entered the capital to restore order after Ethiopian army troops began looting and terrorizing city residents over the weekend, plunged the capital into confusion as the clamor of battle echoed through the streets. Although government troops had been ordered not to resist, some nevertheless stayed and put up what appeared to be a half-hearted fight.

    For the rebels, triumph was swift and casualties described as light in the seizure of a city of 3 million whose citizens and soldiers were armed to the teeth. Within hours, the scruffy but apparently well-organized guerrilla army controlled most of the key strategic sites in the city. The ministries of defense, information and foreign affairs fell like dominoes after brief exchanges of fire. Only at the grounds of the presidential palace -- the scene of fighting Monday between army troops and the elite palace guard -- did the advancing rebels meet any significant opposition.

    "We came right in with five squadrons, one donkey, one {automatic rifle} and a broken pistol," joked 22-year-old rebel fighter Alem Gebre-Meskar as he stood guard at the Hilton Hotel early today. "It has been pretty simple."

    Rebel tanks closed in on the palace from two sides at about 5:45 a.m. local time and started to blast away, triggering a response of heavy but wild small-arms fire from within the palace grounds. The downtown Hilton Hotel, a few blocks from the palace, was briefly the center of a blistering exchange between the two sides.

    Large-caliber bullets ripped through the rooms of at least six hotel guests, while the tennis courts and parking lots were littered with shrapnel from bursting shells. Not long afterward, a munitions cache on the palace grounds was hit, rocking the city for at least three hours with a steady series of spectacular explosions that rained shrapnel on neighboring slums.

    Many guests wound up huddling in the hotel basement until the worst of the fighting was over. Others, including about 60 foreign journalists, struggled between fear of the firefight and curiosity about what was happening outside. Many compromised, piling mattresses and furniture against the windows and peering through cracks.

    Two hours after the big guns first shook the city, most of the local resistance was spent. But pockets of fighting were reported in various locations around the capital, and there were occasional exchanges and bursts of fire on the palace grounds throughout the day.

    Journalists taking a quick tour of the compound saw the burned-out carcasses of several tanks, but fewer than a dozen bodies. Many buildings were destroyed on the palace grounds, and rebels reportedly seized three dozen government tanks that were not destroyed in the battle.

    By midday, residents of the city began to emerge cautiously from their shanties and apartments. Soon, hundreds living around the Hilton Hotel were milling in the streets, some to take care of household chores and others to catch a glimpse of the conquerors, who had long been publicly reviled by the government as "mere bandits."

    At first, there was deep and mutual suspicion between the two groups. In keeping with the Democratic Front's order for citizens to stay indoors for at least 24 hours, rebel soldiers fired over the heads of curious onlookers. The civilians dispersed in panic, only to regroup a short time later.

    "We are afraid of them, but we wanted to see what they look like," explained a 10-year-old shoeshine boy named David.

    Gradually, the streets began to fill up around the city center. Despite the still frequent clatter of distant gunfire, there was an almost surreal quality to the calm and seeming detachment of those who gathered to watch. But the tension that had ripened here during the final days of the rebel offensive was not to be dispelled quickly.

    "People are nervous. Not just because of our visitors, but because even kids in this town have automatic rifles and grenades" acquired from fleeing government soldiers, said a student named Filipos. As he stood listening to a conversation with a rebel soldier, he noted that his family had come from Tigray Province, like most of the Democratic Front fighters, but he said he had not learned to speak their language.

    "I don't understand Tigrayan very well," he said. "But I guess I'll learn."

    Many residents here said they were worried that rule by the Democratic Front would amount to little more than the same hard-line socialism long followed by the regime of ousted president Mengistu. Although the Democratic Front leadership has repeatedly sought to play down its Marxist roots, strong tones of doctrinaire socialism still seep through its public pronouncements and organizational framework.

    Yet hundreds, if not thousands, of Ethiopians threw such reservations to the wind today, and many were seen flocking around the rebel soldiers, in some cases embracing them. The capital's enterprising street urchins swiftly adapted and before the smoke had cleared were doing a brisk business in selling cigarettes to the rebels.

    At a traffic circle north of the palace, at least 1,000 residents poured into the streets to cheer and applaud the rebels.

    Many of the guerrillas were clearly moved by the unexpected welcome. "Even though I am tired after nine years of fighting, I do not feel the exhaustion. I am personally very happy to be talking with the people of Addis Ababa like I am now," said 23-year-old rebel Maj. Lemlem Negas, surrounded by about 20 curious and smiling residents.

    The insurgents took pains to stress that they sought no widespread reprisals against citizens and former government officials. And while many of them said their organization retained its Marxist political orientation, the notion of pluralist democracy seemed to have trickled down even to the rank and file.

    "We do not emphasize socialism, but democracy," said 27-year-old Zereu Gebre-Mariam, as he rested along a main street listening to Tigrayan music on a cassette player.

    Added 30-year-old Kebede Kahasai, who said he had been fighting since the Tigray People's Liberation Front was organized in 1975: "We are not happy because we won, but because we came today in relative peace. We do not enjoy the murder and killing. What we are praying for is the chance for this country to be free."

    The rebels also indicated that considerable tactical sophistication had gone into the planning of their assault on the capital. One said he had stayed in a room in the Hilton Hotel for the past five days, watching palace operations from his balcony and phoning his observations to rebel commanders.

    Another, 24-year-old Seltan Felcadu, claimed he had been working undercover in the capital for several years as an operative for the Democratic Front's "international security forces." Wearing jeans and a tan sports shirt and with an AK-47 held nonchalantly between his knees, he said that during all that time he knew the name of only one other rebel in his underground unit.

    Such reports seemed to back up suspicions previously voiced by officials of the Mengistu regime that fifth columnists in the capital had long been at work to undermine the government.

    Throughout the three-month offensive that culminated in today's victory, military moves by the rebels against the army have been uncannily adept, diplomats and government officials said. In addition, sensitive information about government political plans, such as a call by Mengistu last month for an extraordinary parliament session on the civil war, was sometimes heard first on rebel radio.

    Rebel units moving around the capital today seemed well directed and appeared to follow a precise operational plan. Even under fire, the guerrillas maintained orderly formations while moving along buildings or darting from tree to tree.

    Lemlem, the rebel major, confirmed that the insurgents had been ordered to maintain strict discipline because "foreigners are watching" -- an apparent reference to the Western governments whose support they are seeking during transition to the promised multi-party democracy.

    The fighters said that even their sex lives have been tightly regimented. Lemlem said that romance among the guerrillas was strictly forbidden before 1985 but that as their strict political views gradually relaxed, so did their stance on sex.

    "Even now, before we take lovers, we must get a paper signed by our superiors," she said, explaining that it was a written contract of fidelity designed to prevent too many emotional conflicts -- and pregnancies -- among the troops.

    Many capital residents displayed far less discipline, as outbreaks of looting were reported in widely scattered areas of the city and scores of civilians attacked the notorious and now abandoned central police station, where hundreds of prisoners were tortured or killed during Mengistu's rule. The crowd removed anything they could find from the station, including chairs and even lunch boxes, witnesses said.

    Some foreign observers said they doubted the rebels had enough personnel -- in the words of one diplomat -- "to put out a hundred fires at once."

    "Our impression is that most of the remaining pockets of resistance have been mopped up, and now the rebels are faced with the more difficult problem of looting -- one of the reasons they were called in in the first place," the diplomat said.

    © Copyright 1991 The Washington Post Company

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