The government Saturday confirmed the fall of Asmara, the country's second-largest city, to Eritrean rebels--a development that may have finally brought an end to Africa's longest civil war, the 30-year Eritrean struggle for independence.
The fall of Asmara came with the surrender late Friday of Ethiopia's 2nd Army--a force of 100,000 that was once considered the continent's best-trained and best-equipped fighting force--to troops of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front.
The collapse was another legacy of the 14-year rule of Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Marxist dictator who fled to exile Tuesday, leaving an economy in ruins and an army demoralized by years of costly and senseless battle.
Also fallen to the Eritrean rebels, sources here said Saturday, was Assab, hitherto the only remaining government-held port on the Red Sea and an important depot for fuel and other goods destined for the capital, Addis Ababa. The Eritrean rebels, however, have said that they will not block the shipment of non-military supplies bound for the city.
Government and other sources said that although the final battle for Asmara was accompanied by some artillery fire, the rebel victory was accomplished with minimal combat.
"I think it was not very violent and reasonably orderly," said Ethiopian Prime Minister Tesfaye Dinka at a press conference at Addis Ababa Airport shortly before he departed to head the government delegation at peace talks with rebel groups set to begin Monday in London.
Eritrea was declared a colony by Italy at the turn of the century, but after World War II the United Nations voted to federate it with Ethiopia, reflecting Emperor Haile Selassie's desire to unite his fractured country. The Eritreans quickly bridled at what they considered the Ethiopian government's highhanded treatment of their region, and the separatist movement took form in 1961.
Over the years the rebels created a virtual shadow government behind their own lines, complete with hospitals, small factories and schools. They were supplied with arms and materiel by radical Arab backers, including Libya's Col. Moammar Kadafi, and over time whittled the government's control of Eritrea to an encircled Asmara and to the region around Assab.
Early last year, the rebels seized the port of Massawa, Asmara's main supply source, a victory that brought the government's Eritrean defense to the brink of collapse. But the rebels avoided attacking Asmara proper, fearing that a protracted battle would demolish a city of exceptional beauty and great cultural significance.
Still, what is essentially the end of the Eritrean nationalists' war of independence could easily complicate matters at the U.S.-sponsored peace talks, which will involve the government, the EPLF, and the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, a coalition of six rebel groups that has surrounded the capital of Addis Ababa and appears able to enter the city with little effort.
The Eritrean goal of independence for their rocky province on the shores of the Red Sea is opposed not only by the government but by the Revolutionary Democratic Front, both of which recognize that it would turn Ethiopia into a divided, landlocked country. The Eritrean rebels say they might settle for a referendum on secession, but government officials said Saturday that terms for such a vote would still have to be negotiated.
"In principle, the Ethiopian government has not been against a referendum," said Ashagrie Yigletu, a senior official who was the government's chief negotiator in earlier talks with the Eritreans in Washington and will be part of the government delegation in London. "But when a part of a country is going to split, it is not only those people who should vote on it. The whole country should vote."
The army's surrender in Asmara exemplifies the wholesale collapse of army discipline and morale that has brought Ethiopia to the brink of rebel takeover.
Deserting soldiers from the wide front around the capital continued to stream into the city Saturday, bearing their rucksacks and rifles but getting into virtually no trouble. "No one has been able to identify a single episode of violence from them," said one observer in the city.
Ethiopian citizens interviewed around town confirmed that the soldiers, most of whom were young draftees subjected to harsh conditions in hopeless battle during the long civil war, were engaging in no looting or gunplay in the city.
The docility of the soldiers was one of countless examples of Addis Ababa's eerie serenity as a capital of 2.5 million people facing a rebel invasion. Revolutionary Democratic Front troops were reported to be as close as five miles from the city line on the road north out of the city--so close that one Western embassy's military attache on a reconnaissance drive inadvertently ran into a rebel advance scouting party just beyond the city line. The attache returned home after a brief chat with the soldiers.
Revolutionary Democratic Front leaders assured American and other diplomats as late as Friday night that they will not enter the city until at least after the peace talks commence on Monday, when the terms of a formal cease-fire might be established. Western officials expressed hope that the rebels will recognize that an assault on the capital, which might provoke chaos and anarchy, would ruin their credibility with the international community and leave them without much of a country to run.
"They're going to need some help when they come in here," said one Western diplomat, "because this is a country that's on its knees economically." For its part, the government lost no opportunity to placate rebel leaders who have argued that Mengistu's flight has left in place the same autocratic, untrustworthy government that he headed.
"We have taken all the important steps," said Prime Minister Tesfaye, referring to the post-Mengistu regime's release of 187 political prisoners and its commitment to participate in a transitional government and in free elections.
Reflecting new-found government humility, Tesfaye said his delegation would present no specific plan for elections to the peace conference in London.
"We have no right to have a blueprint," he said. "That is up to the transitional government."
But he also said the government would oppose with force any attempt by the rebels to enter Addis Ababa.
"We want to avoid a confrontation, a situation where we have to fight it out in Addis," he said. "But if the population of the city is threatened, we will do our best to defend it."