Rebel Troops Attack Capital of Ethiopia : Africa: Little resistance is reported from government forces. Fast-moving events mark the end for regime that seized power in 1974.


Rebel forces moved into this capital city at dawn today, with a coordinated assault on the presidential palace, the international airport and other strategic points.

Within hours, the rebels claimed they had taken over the capital, Reuters news service reported.

The shooting broke out about 5:30 a.m. Rebel tanks moved up the hill in front of the palace and quickly scored a hit on the compound's ammunition dump, which was still burning two hours later. The flames and explosions forced the rebels to temporarily pull back.

But there appeared to be little resistance to the advance from government troops, who have deserted in large numbers over the last few days.

Most of Addis Ababa was reported to be calm, as its citizens seemed to be heeding calls over government and rebel radio to stay off the streets all day today.

There was no news today on the whereabouts of the acting president, Tesfaye Gebre Kidan. He was reported to be in the presidential palace Monday afternoon, along with the presidential guard, many of whom had apparently deserted.

Most of the explosions and gunshots coming from the presidential palace appeared to be the result of the fire in the ammunition dump, rather than fighting between rival forces. The fighting at the palace appeared to be over within a few hours.

Rebel units were in radio communication with each other, and each unit had been assigned a specific target, which they had been expected to take without much opposition.

On Monday, the interim government declared a unilateral cease-fire in the country's long civil war, and rebel leaders ordered their troops to take control as the collapse of military and civil authority threatened a breakdown of public order in the capital.

The fast-moving developments marked the decisive end of a regime that seized power in 1974 with the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie.

Kidan, the interim president and a veteran member of Ethiopia's Marxist ruling Dergue, or "committee," told diplomats Monday afternoon that he would call upon the people of Addis Ababa to welcome the rebels and cooperate in their restoration of law and order.

The government broadcast announcements to that effect on state radio Monday, but its ability to communicate with all parts of the city was questionable, raising the possibility that pockets of armed public resistance might emerge to battle the rebel advance.

There was also confusion in London, where Ethiopia's prime minister, attending the first session of U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations with representatives of the three main rebel groups, threatened to quit the talks if the rebels entered the capital.

"The rebel forces should never enter Addis Ababa. Any elements that have entered should quickly withdraw," Prime Minister Tesfaye Dinka said. "There will be a lot of reaction. . . . It will explode into hand-to-hand battle."

Dinka spoke at a news conference at the Ethiopian Embassy soon after U.S. mediator Herman Cohen, assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, said that a cease-fire agreement had been reached and would be announced by the interim government in Addis Ababa.

The London talks had been expected to last several days, and the quick announcement of a cease-fire came as a surprise to diplomatic observers. The groups represented are the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the umbrella group dominated by insurgents from the province of Tigre; the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), which has been fighting for independence since 1961; and the Oromo Liberation Front, whose members have been active in western Ethiopia.

Speaking after Monday's session at the Berkshire Hotel in central London had ended, Cohen declared: "In order to reduce uncertainties and eliminate tensions in the city, and after consulting with all of the parties, the U.S. government is recommending that the forces of the EPRDF enter the city as soon as possible to help stabilize the situation."

Cohen said in London that the EPRDF leadership at the talks gave assurances of plans for a provisional government that would create a democratic constitution. The group's leader, Moses Zenawi, whose forces had surrounded the capital, pledged to form a broad-based transitional government, presumably including members of the present leadership.

Sources in Addis Ababa said American mediators have been laboring since Sunday, when all the delegations arrived in London, to arrange an orderly entry into the capital by revolutionary front troops Thursday. But as reports reached London of an accelerating breakdown of order in the capital, Zenawi decided to send his troops into the city sooner.

Those reports included word of a mass defection of the Presidential Guard, an elite military unit estimated at more than 1,500 troops once assigned to protect former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Members of the guard, who had remained stationed at the Menelik Palace, where Mengistu had lived until his flight into exile last Tuesday, broke into the palace armory and disappeared with a large arsenal of weapons, diplomatic sources said.

By Monday afternoon, Addis Ababa was virtually awash with defecting soldiers from units that had been stationed at the approaches to the capital, in front of the rebel lines. Throughout the day, the city's broad boulevards teamed with pedestrians and vehicular traffic. Traffic police remained on duty, and in the city's outwardly orderly atmosphere, even armored troop carriers moving through town stopped at traffic lights. But there were proliferating reports of looting in some sections of the city.

Late in the afternoon, a column of government tanks moved through Addis Ababa's center toward the hilltop Menelik Palace and took up positions in front of it and inside the palace compound. There was some exchange of fire between the tanks in front of the palace and forces inside.

The sound of random gunfire, which had been a standard accompaniment to nightfall for the last three days, was heard late in the afternoon and continued into the night, occasionally heavy.

Electric power, which had been supplied without interruption to the city even after rebels seized a main generating station late last week, ceased at about 4 p.m. but was restored in some sections of the city by about 8:30 p.m.

Meanwhile, the ramifications multiplied of the government's defeat by the EPRDF and the Eritrean People's Liberation Front, which had waged a 30-year war of independence culminating in its seizure Saturday of the Eritrean capital of Asmara.

The Eritrean rebels Saturday also took Assab, the last major Red Sea port held by the government and a vital fuel supply source for Addis Ababa. That action provoked the outflow of about 30,000 refugees, including deserting soldiers and citizens of the city.

The refugees began appearing in the neighboring country of Djibouti, where authorities were reported to be preparing to declare a refugee emergency. Across the Red Sea, in Yemen, Foreign Minister Abdul-Karim Iryani said that 12 Ethiopian navy ships carrying about 2,500 crew members have sought refugee in Yemen ports. The warships were anchored off Mukha, a port 155 miles south of the Yemeni capital of Sana, but officials said the sailors had not been allowed ashore.

Western diplomats who visited acting President Tesfaye on Monday afternoon said he openly acknowledged that "discipline, command and control of the army had collapsed," said one visitor.

This diplomat and others said the disappearance of army control left the revolutionary front, which was ringing the capital and had the international airport within artillery range, as the only coherent force in the vicinity capable of maintaining order.

The airport remained closed through the day as the country's commercial airline, Ethiopian Airlines, moved all operations to neighboring Djibouti and Kenya. There were no other landings by international flights.

The apparent end-game of Ethiopia's 17-year-old Marxist regime began last Tuesday with Mengistu's abrupt flight into exile. A ruthless ideologue, he had seized absolute power in 1977, three years after he and his colleagues in a military junta overthrew the aged emperor.

He ruled during a period that included one of the world's deadliest famines in 1984-85, as well as the debilitating civil war. Once an exporter of food and livestock, Ethiopia during those years deteriorated into one of the world's poorest countries.

At the time of his departure, the EPRDF and EPLF rebels had scored a series of victories over his army, once the largest and best-trained in sub-Saharan Africa. The EPRDF, which had said its prime goal had been the removal of Mengistu from power, subsequently tightened its stranglehold on the capital as the demoralized and battle-weary government forces melted away.

As the start of the peace talks approached, residents of the capital displayed increasing anxiety over the approach of the rebels, popularly known by the label woyane, or "bandits." The revolutionary front is primarily made up of rebels from the region of Tigre, in the north of the country, and it represents a different ethnic group than the Amhara who predominate in Addis Ababa. The rebel group has also in the past professed a Maoist variety of Marxism, not likely to appeal broadly to Ethiopians who have suffered under a Leninist regime for nearly two decades.

Throughout the weekend and on Monday thousands of city residents could be seen gathering at its Ethiopian Orthodox and Coptic churches, assembling in groups to pray for the success of the peace talks, pressing their lips and foreheads to the cold stone of the church walls in supplication.

"All Ethiopians just need only peace and the country's unity," said Germa Wolde Mariam, 30, one of the visitors to the Church of St. George in central Addis Ababa. Germa expressed a common fear of what would happen if the woyane enter the city.

"If the woyane come here," he said, "maybe there would be shooting."

He also expressed concern over the heavy armament carried by many common citizens in Addis Ababa, an arsenal that has increased in recent days as deserting soldiers have sold their guns for fare money to go home to their rural districts.

Many people have expressed concern that residents of the city might use their weapons to settle scores with representatives of the government or with people with whom they have had disagreements over the years.

"In Addis," he said, "many people have their own guns. Many people may oppose each other. If I had trouble with somebody in the past, perhaps now I would use my gun against him."

Diplomatic sources here and in London said that the prospect of a wholesale settling of scores among the Addis citizenry was one key reason behind the need for the rapid entrance of the rebel forces today.

The cease-fire announcement was welcomed in Britain by aid agencies working to bring relief to the Ethiopian people and refugees from the Sudan and Somalia. Oxfam's Africa director Brendan Gormely warned that hundreds of thousands of people could die if the cease-fire is violated and supply lines are broken.

Times staff writer William Tuohy, in London, contributed to this report.

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