The killing of seven top officers of Ethipia's ruling military council, including its chairman, Gen. Teferi Bente, is part of an intense power struggle within the country's leadership that has been under way since early last year and that is probably not over yet.
There is now the distinct possibility that the military council will devour itself before a leadership acceptable to its rank-and -file can emerge. This would throw the country into a period of anarchy and perhaps widescale civil war.
The military government is already facing an extremely serious situation on two fronts. In northern Eritrea Province a secessionist movement has been making steady battlefield gains lately. In the northwest, a kind of royalist army, opposing the government's socialist revolution and favoring a restoration of the monarchy, has suddenly become a serious threat.
Virtually all of the surrounding countries - Somalia to the east, Kenya to the south and Sudan to the west and north - are now declared enemies of the Ethiopian military council and covertly or overtly, are supporting opposition groups.
For the past two years, Ethiopia has been undergoing an enormous social and economic upheaval. The old landed aristocracy has been over-thrown, a sweeping land reform declared and practically all of the country's important industries nationalized.
It appears that Ethiopia's socialist revolution and ruling Marxist leaders are facing their toughest hours, and the outcome is far from certain in the wake of the latest killings.
Only last July, a similar upheaval inside the council led to the excution of another top ruler. Maj. Sisay Hapte, and several other members accused of plotting against the revolution.
Now it seems that the Ethiopian revolution has begun devouring its own children at an alarming rate and that mounting tensions and problems are bringing the power struggle to a bloody, convulsive head only 28 months after the military deposed the emperor Haile Selassie and seized the power under a broad collective governing body. Haile Selassie later died in captivity.
The two apparent winners in the latest round of internecine killings, Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam and Lt. Col. Atnafu Abate, have long viewed each other as prime rivals and at times have been at serious odds, primarily over the issue of power.
At the same time, the two officers, who served as first and second vice chairmen of the military council, have repeatedly closed ranks against the other top officers when threatened to preserve their ownn positions.
Now that their mutual rivals within the new 17-member standing committee of the council, the highest authority, have been killed, the two men will have to establish a new relationship and division of power that may not be possible.
It also remains to be seen how the 60 to 80 officers of the council's main body, knows the general assembly, will react to the latest bloodletting. In the past, they have rejected Col. Mengistu's attempts to consolidate his power and worked to curb his authority.
Most of the seven officers reported to have been killed in fighting around the government palace or executed were particular opponents of Col. Mengistu. Once regarded as the revolution's strongman, the 39-year-old officer has recently been forced into a secondary role, serving as chairman of the civilian council of ministers.
Probably more than any other figure within the military council, Mengistu has been the symbol of the country's radical socialist revolution and has had the reputatation of inclining distinctly toward the East rather than the West.
But the key issue between Mengistu and his colleagues has never been primarily foreign policy or ideology, but power and its sharing among the officers.
In December the military government announced a new system of "Marxist-leninist leadership," under which power was to be shared among a 17-member standing committee, a 40-member central committee and a general assembly of undetermined size.
Among those responsible for setting up the new tripartite division of authority were two captains reportedly killed in the latest fighting. Mogus Wolde-Michael and Alemayeu Haile. The latter had been chosen to take over the key post of secretary general within the council's standing committee, depriving Mengistu of considerable power.
A third victim, council chairman Teferi, was given considerably more authority than he has previously had and made, among other things, commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
The net effect of the whole new system of government was to undermine Mengistu's base of power considerably. Reports circulating in the capital in December said he was extremely unhappy and even balking at talking up his new assignment of chairman of the council of ministers.
Another tipoff that all was not well within the ruling circle of officers came Sunday at a massive demonstration by supporters of the revolution in the capital. Neither Mengistu nor Atnafu appeared for the extraordinary occasion while both Teferi and Mogus did.
It is likely that the surviving two top officers, Mengistu and Afnafu, will seek to rally their civilian and military supporters, perhaps even handling out arms to "defend the revolution" from both leftist and rightist opponents.
But whether such a radicalization of the revolution will resolve the mounting military problem the council fces on all sides remains to be seen. Certainly it will not if the internal power struggle continues, tearing apart the entire leadership of the revolution.