Ethiopian rebels on Wednesday ignored international appeals for a cease-fire in their civil war and moved to within 40 miles of the capital, Addis Ababa, one day after they forced the country's dictator to end his 14-year rule and flee to the southern African nation of Zimbabwe.
"It was our pressure that brought Mengistu Haile Mariam to the position of leaving the country, and we will continue the pressure," said Asefa Mamo, a spokesman in London for the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, one of the two major insurgent groups operating in the country.
But Mamo said the front still intends to attend peace talks scheduled to begin Monday in London under U.S. sponsorship.
Forces of the front, a coalition of six ethnic and regionally based rebel organizations, on Wednesday moved past the town of Addis Alem, about 40 miles west of Addis Ababa on a well-paved road with few physical obstacles to slow an advance on the capital.
The rebels "are an immediate threat just if they keep walking," said one observer in Addis Ababa.
The group asserted that battles in and around Addis Alem over the last two days have left more than 5,000 government troops dead and that about 1,500 officers have been captured. The claims were unconfirmed.
Western diplomats and others in Addis Ababa, reached by telephone from Nairobi, said people in the capital were outwardly calm but "the percentage of nervous strain is just going up," in the words of one.
The government, now under the leadership of former Defense Minister Tesfaye Gebre-Kidan, who was named acting head of state upon Mengistu's departure, broadened a citywide curfew from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., and there were reports of increased armored activity around Addis Ababa.
Western governments, many of which had tried to pressure Mengistu to resign, warned Wednesday that the continued rebel advance could provoke unnecessary bloodshed. With the new government essentially capitulating to rebel demands for the creation of a transitional government and moves toward free elections, and with the peace talks set to begin Monday, the rebels' political goals are in sight, they argued.
"A lot of people are going to die needlessly, because the war is essentially over," said a Western diplomatic source in Addis Ababa. "The politics in Ethiopia now are oriented toward what the insurgents want."
In Zimbabwe, the Reuters news agency reported Wednesday that Mengistu had taken refuge on a farm he owns near Zimbabwe's capital, and official sources said he is likely to seek political asylum.
Mengistu, in a green military uniform, arrived at the Harare airport aboard a four-engine jet shortly before midnight Tuesday, an hour after his close friend, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, had left for a visit to Britain.
"He (Mengistu) was looking grim and was quickly driven away by some Ethiopian Embassy officials and local security agents," Reuters quoted one airport official as saying. He was "close to tears," said another.
Unlike the separatist Eritrean People's Liberation Front, the second major rebel group operating in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian revolutionary group has long stated as its principal goal the removal of Mengistu as head of state. But after Mengistu's departure, the rebels contended that the new leadership is too closely associated with the old for a change in policy to be self-evident.
Mamo said from London that he could not predict whether or when his organization's forces might enter Addis Ababa because "what is happening on the ground has its own dynamic. Nobody can ask us to stop the advance."
Observers were braced in the capital for a possible outbreak of mayhem, particularly if government army units, demoralized and battle-weary, retreat through the city. So far, however, army officers have managed to channel retreating soldiers around Addis Ababa, and in any event "there's not enough fight left in the government troops for much of that," said one diplomat in the capital.
The troops, most of them conscripts who have been heavily knocked about in fighting this year, "are mostly interested in going home," he said.
Still, there are concerns that a continued rebel advance could provoke anarchy in the capital among a heavily armed and resentful citizenry trying to settle scores with remnants of the formerly Marxist government led by the ruthless Mengistu since 1977.
"The capital could be without any local authority if the present government were just to resign," said one observer. "Are the rebels just going to come in and run things smoothly?"
On Wednesday the new government leader met with some Western diplomats, repeating his appeal for peace. Tesfaye is known in Ethiopia as a moderate but long-term member of the ruling Dergue, or military council. As military chief in Eritrea, a region where government forces controlled only the provincial capital of Asmara, he gained a reputation as something of a reform-minded leader of a martial-law government.
"He did a creditable job in an impossible situation," said one diplomat familiar with Tesfaye.
"He's a reasonable man, a civilized man, a little aristocratic in a way," said another diplomat. "Quite an unusual specimen for the Dergue."