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    Eritreans Vote in Plebiscite to Separate From Ethiopia

    By Jennifer Parmelee
    Special to The Washington Post
    Wednesday, April 28, 1993; Page A13

    ASMERA, ERITREA, APRIL 27 -- Eritrea's divorce from Ethiopia was pronounced final today, relegating to history three decades of irreconcilable differences that transformed this territory beside the Red Sea into one of Africa's bloodiest battlegrounds.

    More than 1 million voters who trace their heritage to Eritrea decided by a landslide margin to declare independence from Ethiopia, according to provisional results of the three-day, internationally observed plebiscite that ended Sunday.

    "Eritrea is a sovereign country as of today," said Issaias Afwerki, leader of Eritrea's provisional government and the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), in a victory statement tonight. The former rebel group has been running its own show here since it defeated the Ethiopian army -- then Africa's largest and best equipped -- almost two years ago.

    Eritrean Referendum Commissioner Amare Tekle said provisional results showed 1,100,260 voting for independence and 1,822 against. Within the confines of Eritrean Ethiopia, and in the 38 foreign countries that are home to the Eritrean diaspora, the turnout was estimated at 98.5 percent of the registered voters.

    The outcome put a legal stamp on the de facto separation of Ethiopia and Eritrea, whose long war ravaged the human and material resources of two of the world's poorest countries.

    Foreign countries competed to recognize the newborn state today as soon as the results were certified as essentially free and fair by Samir Sanbar, a special envoy dispatched by the United Nations to monitor the referendum. The United States joined Sudan, Egypt and Italy as the first four governments to validate independence in the territory of some 3.2 million people.

    Eritrea plans a formal declaration of independence at next month's second anniversary of the end of the war. It is the first successful African secession since colonial powers began to leave in the late 1950s.

    Although some Eritreans claim their separate identity was born in ancient times, most trace the development of an Eritrean "national feeling" to 51 years as an Italian colony, separate from Ethiopia. After World War II, the United Nations linked the two countries under a federal system. But that arrangement was abruptly abrogated in 1962 when Emperor Haile Selassie annexed Eritrea and declared it an Ethiopian province, triggering the long armed struggle.

    Although the EPLF marched to victory in May 1991, its leadership decided to delay any declaration of independence until a referendum was held. "The EPLF was keenly aware that the issues of sovereignty and membership in the international community were predicated on a democratic and legal conclusion to the conflict," Issaias said.

    EPLF officials said they also deferred formal separation so as not to inflame the anger of a segment of the urban elite in Ethiopia, which now becomes landlocked.

    The issue has been used by political opponents to attack Ethiopia's transitional government, run by a former guerrilla organization that helped defeat the army of Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in May 1991 and launched a democratic experiment of its own.

    As the vote tally was announced by loudspeaker and government radio, Eritreans celebrated.

    When the euphoria of independence dies down and the mechanics of statehood are ironed out, however, Eritrea will face a perhaps even more difficult struggle: to repair billions of dollars' worth of war damage and to move its people from nearly total dependence on foreign charity to development and self-reliance. An equal challenge could be to put in place the truly democratic institutions to which the EPLF says it is committed.

    "Everybody is very happy about the end of the war, about freedom and independence. You can see that for yourself," said businessman Hapte Kaysay. "But now we must see whether this government will really give us a multi-party system, as it has promised, and the other expressions of democracy. That will be the real test."


    © Copyright 1993 The Washington Post Company

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