Rebels Claim to Surround Main Ethiopia Airport

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rebels of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front claimed Sunday to have surrounded Addis Ababa International Airport, less than five miles east of the city.

The announcement was broadcast over rebel radio not long after heavy gunfire was heard from the direction of the airport. The broadcast warned international air carriers not to fly over the city or attempt to land at the airport.

The warning is certain to strand many of the hundreds of foreign residents here who have been leaving the country in recent days as rebel forces closed in on the capital and the country's military forces, weary from leadership failures and years of fighting the insurgents, collapsed.

The insurgent claim to have surrounded the airport, if true, puts the rebels at the gates of the capital just hours before peace talks, aimed at a cease-fire agreement, are scheduled to begin today in London. With a curfew in effect, the claim could not be immediately verified.

The rebels have continued to pledge not to enter the city proper at least until after today's peace talks commence.

Signs of the Ethiopian military's complete collapse continued to emerge Sunday, with word that rebels had taken the city of Debre Zeit, about 28 miles southeast of Addis Ababa and the headquarters of the Ethiopian air force.

That followed by a day the surrender of the 100,000-member 2nd Army, once an elite fighting force battling rebels in the northern province of Eritrea, and the flight of its commander, reportedly to Saudi Arabia.

With the surrender of the 2nd Army came the fall of Asmara, the country's second-largest city, and a significant victory for Ethiopia's other major rebel organization, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front.

The Eritrean front also reported capturing Assab on the Red Sea, the last port in government hands. The Eritrean rebels have been fighting for the independence of their region since 1961.

About 10,000 Ethiopian soldiers and civilians have fled to neighboring Djibouti, the radio in that small country said Sunday. It said they included air force personnel from bases in Addis Ababa and Debre Zeit and that 14 Ethiopian aircraft landed Sunday at Djibouti airport, Reuters news agency reported. In Yemen across the Red Sea, a Yemeni official said that 12 Ethiopian vessels carrying 3,000 people arrived Sunday at a Yemeni port, Reuters reported. "We believe it is the entire navy," the official said.

Over the last week, thousands of deserting soldiers have been a common sight on the streets of Addis Ababa. They can be found at the Central Mercado, or market, shopping for civilian clothing, their guns hanging at their sides; gathering at the railway station; wandering the broad streets in their tattered uniforms, often looking lost--not surprisingly, for many of them are rural youths just searching for companionship and a way to get home.

"It's an unofficial demobilization," remarked one diplomatic observer here.

The influx of deserters is just one illustration of the disintegration of the military, a key element of the fall of Mengistu Haile Mariam, this country's dictator until his flight Tuesday.

In the face of a rebel offensive that has consolidated control of about a third of the country since February and brought rebel troops to an encirclement of this capital, the army has all but melted away.

At one point, the number of stragglers moving through the city was estimated at more than 10,000, but military police have been working hard to sweep them up and move them to camps outside the city. There the authorities disarm them, investigate whether any might be rebel infiltrators and if possible reorganize them into operational units to return to the front outside the capital.

The army collapse has continuing implications for Ethiopia because of its potential for exacerbating the country's crisis.

Prime Minister Tesfaye Dinka, who pledged over the weekend that the government would defend Addis Ababa against any rebel attempt to overrun it, was somewhat at a loss to explain what forces might be available to resist a rebel push.

"We have other forces besides the army," he said before leaving the capital Saturday to head the government delegation at peace talks with three rebel groups today in London under U.S. sponsorship. "The population is willing to defend itself."

The absence of any organized national force leaves the government with a virtually empty hand to play at the peace talks. Few observers of Ethiopian politics believe that the rebels, who draw their strength from the north and west of the country, could rule the country by force, since the southern provinces are still strongholds of anti-rebel nationalism. But with the government unable to make even a show of military resistance, they may be tempted to try.

"This is going to require some real statesmanship from the rebels, and I'm not sure they have it," said one analyst of Ethiopian affairs.

Rebel domination could have dire consequences for an Ethiopian peace, not least because the group that surrounds Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, is widely mistrusted by residents of the city, who come from a different ethnic group.

The EPRDF has contended in recent months that it will accommodate a free-market economy and open political system if it gains power--precisely what Western governments want to hear. But as recently as the last week of January, after its first Congress, the organization's political manifesto included vaguely totalitarian-sounding pledges to "restrain the democratic rights of feudalists and capitalists who are the cause of backwardness and poverty (and) to authorize the government to restrain the rights of the anti-government and anti-people forces."

Ironically, Mengistu, who was perhaps the most important victim of the army's disintegration, was also its cause.

"The army was the reason for Mengistu's survival" after his accession to power in 1977, says one prominent Western military analyst familiar with Ethiopian affairs. "The army saw him as someone prepared to defend the integrity of Ethiopia, with itself as the tool."

At its peak in 1978, the Ethiopian army was the largest fighting force in sub-Saharan Africa, 300,000 strong, consuming more than 60% of the country's budget. For a time it was also one of the most feared, having scored what were near-decisive victories against the Eritrean rebels in the civil war that began in 1961.

But by the mid-1980s, Mengistu's own policies had sapped morale and destroyed the officer corps. Mengistu had scores of officers executed for real or imagined errors in the field. Such important tactical decisions as the movement of units battalion-sized or larger had to be approved personally by the president, a rule that made it impossible to maneuver with flexibility. The Eritrean rebels began a military resurgence and other ethnic rebel groups emerged and advanced.

After Mengistu in 1977 abruptly severed relations with the United States, which had equipped and trained his army, he brought in the Soviets as suppliers and advisers--but their materiel was often inappropriate or inadequate. One example was the shipment of a fleet of Soviet T-72 tanks, whose turrets' range of elevation was so constrained they were virtually useless in mountainous country, where the army was fighting Eritrean rebels.

In 1990 the Soviets, embarrassed by their association with Mengistu and embroiled in their own internal crises, largely ended military assistance.

By the mid-1980s, the only way to add soldiers to the ranks was by forcible conscription, a process that the army often accomplished by surrounding schools or shops and dragooning any boys caught inside. The most brutal of such drives, in March and April, 1989, led directly to a military coup attempt that May.

The attempt quickly failed, and Mengistu executed or jailed most of the officers involved, further depleting the High Command.

By some accounts the final straw in the army's alienation from Mengistu came last May, when 12 generals were executed for their putative role in the previous year's coup attempt.

Evidence against the generals was thin at best, and the court- martial was poised to sentence them to prison terms of five to 15 years--considered lenient under the circumstances.

Instead, Mengistu ordered the court-martial to sentence them to death. That provoked the resignation of its chairman, Tesfaye Gebre-Kidan, who now, ironically, has succeeded Mengistu as acting president.

"The death sentence was seen as gratuitous," said a Western military analyst. "It was an act of pure revenge by Mengistu against the army."

His loss of support in the military, compounded by a string of defeats that have brought rebels to the Addis Ababa city line, made Mengistu's position untenable and led directly to his flight.

But the defeats now leave Addis Ababa almost undefended. On Sunday, residents could be seen still cheering busloads of soldiers passing through town, but on the outskirts most of the buses appeared to be heading away from the front.

Prime Minister Tesfaye said the army is under orders not to engage the rebels offensively, and it seemed that all that keeps the rebels from invading the city is an appeal from the Ethiopian and Western governments to avoid "fighting it out in Addis Ababa," in Tesfaye's words.

Origins of the Main Ethiopian Rebel Groups

Eritrean People's Liberation Front -- Estimated to be 80,000 strong, the E P L F has been fighting since 1961 in Africa's oldest war. Eritrean became an italian colony in 1890 and was liberated along with the rest of Ethiopia in World War II. Emperor Haile Selassie made it a federal state within Ethiopia.

The rebels are seeking a referendum on independence, but the Ethiopian government opposes giving up Eritrea because it is its only access to the Red Sea.

Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front -- The dominant member of this rebel coalition is the Tigrean People's Liberation Front, estimated at 40,000 strong. It has been fighting since 1975 for President Mengistu Haile Mariam' ouster. The Tigrean rebels have backed off earlier demands for a hard-line Communist government and now say they want a broad-based transitional government representing all ethnic groups in Ethiopia as a prelude to free elections and multi-party democracy.

Oromo Liberation Front -- The Oromos have been fighting since the mid-1970s seeking greater autonomy for the Oromo people, who occupy a broad swath across western, central and eastern Ethiopian. They make up 40% of the Ethiopian population and are the country's largest ethnic group. They have long resented the ruling Amharas, who make up most of the upper class.

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