Ethiopia Capital Under Control of Rebel Army : Africa: U.S. arranges an agreement for insurgents to rule until a provisional government is formed.


An army of youthful and remarkably disciplined rebel soldiers was in full military command of this capital Tuesday, and in London agreement was reached under U.S. mediation for the rebels to rule the country until a new provisional government is formed.

Troops of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) took control of Addis Ababa after a dawn assault that found the city almost entirely undefended by government forces.

The anxiety of the city's 2.5 million residents, which had risen palpably during recent days in which the rebel army encircled the capital, seemed to evaporate as the rebels marched in and moved to establish order calmly and almost cheerfully.

Eyewitnesses said that rebel units met little resistance as they advanced on the international airport, the government radio station and the presidential palace.

"There was no fighting," said one rebel soldier outside the gate to Menelik Palace, the central landmark and presidential headquarters where the most extensive clash of arms apparently took place. "They just ran."

That impression was bolstered by reports from residential areas across town. "I think when the smoke clears we'll find there's minimal damage," said one diplomatic observer of the fighting.

There were casualties nevertheless. Soldiers' bodies could be seen on the street, particularly early in the day and around the area of Menelik Palace, but they were far from commonplace. Medical authorities said there had been considerable bloodshed among the civilian population.

By late Tuesday there was no word of the fate or whereabouts of acting President Tesfaye Gebre-Kidan. Tesfaye assumed power last Tuesday after the abrupt flight into exile of Mengistu Haile Mariam, who for 14 years had led this country into a morass of famine, economic deterioration and military catastrophe.

Hours after the rebels entered the capital, Herman Cohen, U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, announced agreement on the immediate future course of government here. On Monday, Cohen began mediating peace talks in London between Ethiopia's three main rebel groups and representatives of the provisional authorities who replaced Mengistu.

Cohen said the EPRDF, the largest rebel group and the one now in military control here, "will assume state responsibility . . . pending the formation of a broad-based provisional government."

That provisional government, he added, will be charged with holding democratic elections under international supervision within a year.

Prime Minister Tesfaye Dinka of the defeated Ethiopian provisional administration boycotted Tuesday's talks, having walked out of the Monday sessions when Cohen urged the EPRDF to send its forces into Addis Ababa. But Cohen said that Tesfaye's absence was not crucial because all decisions are now being made by the rebel groups.

Meles Zenawi, the rebel chief, who becomes Ethiopia's temporary leader under the mediation accord, said he will begin forming a provisional government within a month.

Speaking at EPRDF's London offices, Zenawi said: "We are well on the way to resolving all our political problems and defining a democratic future for our country. We are not going after retribution."

Zenawi, 36, once an admirer of the former Stalinist stronghold of Albania, added that "peace and order has now been re-established in Addis Ababa" and that he will be returning there "very soon."

Here in the capital, Dr. Tebebe Yemani Birhan, head of the Ethiopian Red Cross, said that at least 500 civilians were transported to hospitals by ambulance Tuesday. Between 200 and 250 more were injured, he said, during a fire Tuesday afternoon at a munitions plant in a residential district on the city's northern edge.

Furthermore, with 400 patients admitted over the last two days, Balcha Hospital, the principal emergency hospital in town, was already filled to well over its capacity of 300 beds. Most of those patients, suffering bullet wounds and similar traumas, had come from neighborhoods far removed from the route of the rebel advance. This suggested they were largely victims of the heavy random gunfire in which Addis Ababa residents have engaged in progressively greater scale each of the last four nights.

Such gunplay was virtually nonexistent 12 hours after the rebel entry into town--an important indication that the EPRDF's goal of establishing security in the city has been at least temporarily accomplished.

Tuesday's military assault came after it became clear here and in London that the provisional administration's ability to maintain order had disappeared.

After acting President Tesfaye admitted this to Western diplomats, Cohen in London told the U.S. Embassy here that order could best be preserved if the rebel troops were "invited" into the city. Tesfaye issued the invitation, and from London, rebel leader Zenawi ordered the advance.

The result appeared to be a well-coordinated attack by separate rebel units, each with a specific objective. The rebels had surrounded the city over the previous several days and occupied positions as close as four miles from the city's outskirts.

"They hit into the heart of town, and now they are radiating out of town, chasing the government soldiers," a diplomatic observer said.

Reports from various parts of town indicated that government troops were fleeing through residential areas, breaking into homes mostly to steal civilian clothing, the better to blend with the general public.

Despite a 24-hour curfew announced over rebel radio, crowds began gathering in the streets, which soon gained the atmosphere of a Sunday afternoon holiday.

The decisive seizure of Addis Ababa strengthened the rebel claim to primacy among the various forces that have been jockeying for power in a collapsing Ethiopia. Besides the EPRDF, the principal rebel groups are the Eritrean People's Liberation Front, whose prime goal is a referendum on independence for Ethiopia's northern coastal province of Eritrea, and the Oromo Liberation Front.

The sole military engagement of any size here Tuesday appeared to be the one at Menelik Palace, where remnants of Mengistu's 1,500-strong presidential guard may have staged a defense. If so, it was over by about 8:30 a.m., about two hours after it began. Scattered gunfire could be heard in the vicinity of the palace for much of the day, but there was no concerted fighting.

An afternoon tour of the palace grounds revealed a scene of immense destruction. A direct hit had ignited the compound's ammunition dump, producing the day's most spectacular display of fireworks.

Rebel soldiers wandered freely among the chambers and halls used by two generations of Ethiopian emperors and occupied until a week ago by the Marxist dictator Mengistu.

At the top of the hill was Emperor Haile Selassie's throne room, later converted into a meeting hall for the Workers' Party of Ethiopia. Beneath an exquisite, if timeworn, chandelier was a red-upholstered throne, facing 200 steel chairs cushioned with seats of red leather with yellow hammer-and-sickle insignias stenciled on their backs.

Although the days preceding the rebel conquest had been filled with concern over the potential for hostile ethnic confrontations between the Amharic citizenry of Addis Ababa and the largely Tigrean rebel army, there were no signs of conflict on the streets.

Instead, groups of residents could be found everywhere eyeing the rebel soldiers with cheerful interest, shaking their hands and occasionally engaging them in conversation.

The rebels themselves were models of discipline on their first day in control. There were no early reports of attacks on civilians, and treatment of captured government soldiers appeared mild.

"I have no anger toward the soldiers," said Gebre Hiwat, 28, an eight-year veteran of the Tigrean People's Liberation Front--the core group of the EPRDF--and a participant of the assault on Menelik Palace. "When I find them, I give them all that they need and I let them go. These soldiers were only forced to fight. They were taken from the street, the office, the field. They make me feel very sorry."

This attitude heartened international observers, who believe that peace in Ethiopia after 30 years of civil war is heavily dependent on the EPRDF's ability to mold a broad-based and representative government.

Meanwhile, signs of the evaporation of the previous government's authority abounded. Biniam Barher Selassie, 30, suddenly found himself wandering the streets a free man after two months in prison on charges of being a rebel sympathizer.

About an hour after the rebel assault began, the guards at the Central Regional Prison freed the 300 political prisoners in their care, Biniam said.

"They open the doors, and they run," he said, heading for his Addis Ababa home to find his wife and two children.

On the other hand, the rebels have not yet had time to establish their own administration. Addis Ababa International Airport was closed for the second day since the rebels moved within artillery range of its runways. There was the possibility that the United Nations might attempt to land a flight today to evacuate its workers' dependents from the capital.

Tebebe of the Ethiopian Red Cross also said the city's hospitals are in desperate condition because medical staff and food handlers have not braved the curfew, and no one in charge could be found to lift it for critical personnel.

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