Ethiopia's President Mengistu Resigns, Flees : Africa: His harsh 14-year rule ends with two rebel groups pressing their advance and peace talks near.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ethiopian President Mengistu Haile Mariam, whose 14-year rule over one of the world's poorest countries was marked by deadly famine and protracted civil war, resigned Tuesday and fled his country for Zimbabwe.

The stunning exit of a man whose ouster has been the goal of two major insurrectionist groups came just two days after rebel troops captured two strategic towns and cut the main overland supply route to the capital, Addis Ababa, raising the prospect of a violent end to his regime.

It also occurred on the eve of peace talks with the rebels, scheduled to open in London next Monday under U.S. sponsorship.

Addis Ababa was said to be calm after state radio reported Mengistu's resignation and departure at about noon. He reportedly left on an Ethiopian air force jet for Nairobi, the capital of neighboring Kenya, before continuing to Harare, Zimbabwe, to join his wife and family.

Ethiopia's ruling council appointed as acting head of state the vice president and former defense minister, Tesfaye Gebre-Kidan, who immediately asked American diplomats to convey to rebel leaders a note requesting a cease-fire in the two-front war.

The effect of Mengistu's fall on the peace talks was unclear, but diplomats familiar with the situation said that his apparently peaceful exit will do much to forestall what could have become another bloody African change of regime. In the last year, the obduracy of beleaguered dictators in Liberia and Somalia has provoked extended bloodshed and chaos in those two countries. Mengistu's resistance to stepping down had raised the same specter for Ethiopia.

For their part, the two main rebel groups set to participate in the talks said the ouster would not in itself resolve the political division afflicting the crippled country.

A London spokesman for the Eritrean People's Liberation Front, which has been waging a war of secession for 30 years along Ethiopia's rocky Red Sea coast, noted that the new chief of state has long been a member of Mengistu's junta "and closely associated with the excesses of the regime."

Asefa Mamo, a spokesman for the second group, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, said, "Mengistu's falling does not mean an end to the war unless the people taking over want genuine peace."

Some observers noted that there is a chance that the change in government will inspire the rebels to redouble their offensives, attempting to bring the regime down completely. This in turn could spark anarchy in the capital.

There were signs that Mengistu's capitulation came under heavy Western pressure. American officials have been in increasingly close contact with the EPLF and the EPRDF from Khartoum, Sudan, and even extracted a written undertaking from the Ethiopian revolutionary front guaranteeing the safety of American property and personnel in Addis Ababa in the event of a rebel assault on the capital.

Mengistu has faced a string of rebel successes for the last two years, but only since February have diplomats and other observers in Addis Ababa sensed the regime's end. Since opening an offensive Feb. 23, the Ethiopian revolutionary front, a coalition of several regional rebel groups dominated by the Tigrean People's Liberation Front, has taken control of a huge swath of territory in the west and center of the country.

By late March, the rebels were within 90 miles of the capital and were fighting increasingly disorganized and demoralized government soldiers. Meanwhile, the Eritrean rebel group was scoring further gains of its own. The regime's prospects seemed hopeless.

"He's like a cancer patient," said one well-informed diplomat at the time. "He'll get a little worse, then a little better, but no one expects him to ever get well." This diplomat, like most others, nevertheless expected Mengistu to die in office, probably violently. Reference books list Mengistu's year of birth as 1937, which would make him 53 or 54; other sources say he is 49.

Last Friday, the Ethiopian revolutionary front seized control of the town of Dessie, 150 miles north of Addis Ababa, where the road from Assab, the last major Red Sea port in government hands, intersects with the supply route to the capital as well as a crucial food relief link to famine-stricken regions in the north. Relief shipments ceased almost immediately.

The government retook the town Saturday, but evidently lost it again a day later.

Mengistu's fall closes a bloody and tragic chapter in the history of Ethiopia, the country with perhaps the richest cultural and political heritage on the African continent.

In his time he presided over one of the modern world's worst famines, the 1984-85 disaster in which as many as 1 million Ethiopians died. As the chieftain of a rigidly Marxist state, he accepted an estimated $10 billion in military aid from the Soviet Union--crucial in prosecuting the long civil war--until Moscow began to cut off assistance in 1989.

Mengistu's agricultural policies helped destroy his country's ability to feed itself. A program of "villagization," in which peasant farmers were uprooted and relocated to collective farms in alien regions, as well as the establishment of costly and unproductive state farms on the Soviet model, sharply reduced food productivity.

Meanwhile, his obstinate refusal to seek a political solution to the civil war alienated Western sources of development aid, forcing the country ever backward.

Mengistu was at first an obscure member of the Dergue, the military junta that in 1974 unseated Emperor Haile Selassie and installed a Marxist regime. He did not become Ethiopia's leader until 1977, when he emerged as the provocateur and key survivor of a bloody shootout in the Dergue's own chambers.

By then, he had already worked behind the scenes to execute most of his strongest opponents. The Dergue shootout in February, 1977, ushered in what became known as Ethiopia's "Red Terror," a Stalin-style purge in which thousands of real and imagined enemies were summarily executed. Only 40 of the Dergue's original 120 members are thought to have survived the purge. But many civilians died too.

"It was gang warfare with arbitrary executions, lynchings and street massacres," recalled Dawit Wolde Georgis, a former foreign affairs minister and relief and rehabilitation commissioner under Mengistu, in a book entitled "Red Tears" that he wrote from exile in the United States. "No one was spared."

Mengistu earned a reputation as one of Africa's most ruthless dictators. He was said to have personally executed military commanders whose performance in the civil war displeased him; the toll is said to have reached 50 senior officers.

Under Mengistu, the country, whose per capita annual income of about $150 made it one of the world's poorest, regularly spent more than half its national budget on the military, the highest level in sub-Saharan Africa. At several points, attrition in the army led the regime to institute Draconian conscription campaigns in which soldiers would surround schools, shops and homes to dragoon all male youths into service.

One such draft in March and April, 1989, led directly to a coup attempt by disgruntled officers. Loyalists quashed the coup within hours, although there were several later reported attempts on the president's life.

Mengistu was a practiced manipulator of the Cold War powers. The United States had been a strong supporter of Haile Selassie and seemed set to become an even more important backer of the revolutionary government; after the 1974 overthrow of Haile Selassie, U.S. military aid to the regime was higher than it had been under the emperor.

But associates said that Mengistu, despite being trained by the U.S. military, disliked the Americans. And when President Jimmy Carter closed down an American satellite tracking station in the Eritrea region in 1977, he used the move as a pretext for aligning Ethiopia with the Soviet Bloc. The move made many of his associates nervous, not least because the country seemed on the verge of war with neighboring Somalia, and the Soviets could not easily service the American arms on which the army relied.

"Mengistu was very secretive regarding the Russians," ex-Cabinet minister Dawit wrote. "No one knew how much they had promised him."

But his meanest legacy was the great famine. The photographs of starving children that galvanized the world in 1984 were the direct result of the regime's slowness to respond to signs of looming disaster.

"There was never any doubt about the attitude of Mengistu and the hard-liners toward the famine," Dawit wrote later. "They . . . refused to believe (it) existed, implying that it was an insult to suggest such a thing could happen in a Marxist-Leninist society, where they asserted that if it did exist, it was better to let nature take its course."

Embattled Ethiopia

Population: 51.7 million

Area: 483,123 square miles (three times the size of California)

Monetary unit: Birr

Language: Amharic, Galligna, Tigrigna

Religions: Ethiopian Orthodox, Islam, animist

Prodcuts: Coffee, hides and skins, oilseed, barley, wheat, corn, sugar cane, cotton, livestock, cement, processed foods, refined sugar and oil.

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